Better offensive line depth puts Notre Dame in good shape

Better offensive line depth puts Notre Dame in good shape
August 5, 2014, 11:45 am
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CULVER, Ind. -- Had Notre Dame watched one of its starting offensive linemen be carted off the field on the first day of practice two years ago, it would've been a disaster.

Fortunately for the Irish, the reason why left tackle Ronnie Stanley was shuttled away from Monday's preseason-opening practice was merely that he needed an IV. But as Stanley was getting hydrated, Mike McGlinchey stepped in at left tackle and Harry Hiestand's unit practiced as if it were no big deal.

Of course, losing Stanley -- arguably the best offensive lineman at Hiestand's disposal -- would've been a big blow. But losing him wouldn't have been an immediate death kneel for Notre Dame's chances this fall.

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The Irish were incredibly fortunate to have the same five offensive linemen start all 13 games in 2012. Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic Jr. and Christian Lombard didn't miss a game, which was crucial given a string of injuries torpedoed an already-thin depth chart behind them. There's a decent chance that if one of those five linemen had to miss time -- as Watt, Lombard and Nick Martin did in 2013 -- Notre Dame doesn't make the BCS Championship.

Heading into the 2014 season, though, it's a completely different story up front.

"We've got guys, God forbid we have an injury with one of our veterans, they can come in," Lombard said. "They're all solid. There's no guy that's like oh, he was a miss. All solid guys and they've got a bright future ahead of them."

That improved depth began to show itself in 2013, as Steve Elmer, Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty came off the bench to adeptly fill in for starters over the course of the season. Elmer and Hegarty appear in line for starting jobs this year at right tackle and left guard, respectively, if Monday's first-team offensive line was any indication.

Behind the starting five is a promising crop of reserves. McGlinchey manned right tackle through spring practice (with Elmer at left guard and Hegarty at center), while Hanratty made four starts a year ago. Also on the second-team offensive line: Sophomore Colin McGovern, who coach Brian Kelly said stood out during spring practice, and 325-pound freshman Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame's only five-star member of its 2014 recruiting class. Mark Harrell manned center, though if Martin had to miss time Hegarty would likely slide to center and Hanratty in at guard.

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The depth isn't limited to just the first two offensive line groups, though. A ream of former four-star recruits aren't on the two-deep yet: Sophomores Hunter Bivin and John Montelus and freshmen Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne and Sam Mustipher. Notre Dame has 15 scholarship offensive linemen this fall, three more than in 2012.

That's a significant increase, one that'll allow Notre Dame to do more in practice as the season wears on and some of the guys on the two-deep get banged up. While the five starters on 2012's offensive line were all solid, things got to a point where the depth was so thin it didn't allow Notre Dame coaches to practice the way they wanted leading up to the 28-point loss battering at the hands of Nick Saban's Crimson Tide.

"We lacked depth at some critical positions which didn't allow us to do some of the things I would have liked to in that period of time before the game, especially on the offensive line," Kelly said in 2013.

If Notre Dame meets its grandiose expectations of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff this year, that same depth issue isn't likely to arise.