It's not the most glamorous position battle that'll take place this spring, but it's among the most important. Notre Dame is tasked with replacing center Braxston Cave, who started 35 games in his career, with an inexperienced lineman -- with that player likely coming from the trio of Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin and Mark Harrell.
Hegarty appears to be the frontrunner for the job heading into spring practice, with the junior-to-be expected to be medically cleared after a frightening ministroke suffered late last year. Hegarty had to undergo heart surgery in December as part of his recovery process.
Rated as the nation's No. 6 offensive tackle out of Aztec High School in New Mexico (he was also ranked as the top player in the state), Hegarty chose Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stanford, Texas and USC, among other schools. The 6-foot-5, 296-pound lineman could be the guy Notre Dame needs to replace Cave.
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Martin, the brother of tenured left tackle Zack Martin, is in the mix as well. He's likely the frontrunner to take over for the graduated Mike Golic Jr. at right guard, though could slide over to center if Hegarty isn't deemed ready for the role.
Harrell impressed Kelly and Notre Dame's coaches during BCS Championship practice, the early part of which was used to give players like Harrell a chance to do just that. Harrell, though, has four years of eligibility left after sitting out his true freshman season in 2012 and may need more time to develop before he could take over a starting role.
Left guard Chris Watt expressed some level of interest in playing center prior to the BCS Championship, although he wasn't mentioned as part of the group vying to replace Cave by Kelly a few months ago. Watt and the elder Martin have comprised the right side of Notre Dame's offensive line for the last two years, and last season were heavily relied upon by the Irish ground game. It doesn't appear like Notre Dame wants to break up that duo for each player's final season in South Bend.
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While replacing Cave won't be easy, the good news for Notre Dame is the return of three starters from 2012 -- Martin, Watt and right tackle Christian Lombard. Golic struggled at times last year, and the younger Martin may ultimately wind up being an upgrade there.
Cave, though, was an unsung contributor to the success of first-year starter Everett Golson. As the greenhorn quarterback was coming along early in the season, he relied on Cave -- and his fellow experienced linemen -- to identify and call out coverages, ones he couldn't recognize given his lack of experience.
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That won't be as big of an issue in 2013, with Golson having a dozen collegiate games under his belt. The transition to an inexperienced center, then, may not wind up being as difficult as it could've been in 2012, had Notre Dame needed to go that route.
We'll have a better idea as to who emerges as the top candidate to replace Cave after April's spring game. Between now and then, though, there's a chance for one Hegarty, Harrell and Martin to gain some separation.