SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Christian Lombard went down with a season-ending injury earlier this month, he became the first starting offensive lineman Notre Dame lost during a season since 2011.
That run of consistency along the O-line has kept things steady for one of the nation's better pass-blocking fronts. The same five linemen started every game for Notre Dame last year, the youngest of whom was Lombard, a junior.
Last fall, that consistency was key for a unit that saw its depth thinned by a slew of injuries (that lack of depth was something a number of players and coaches pointed to as to why Notre Dame was beaten so handily by Alabama).
Coach Brian Kelly made it a point to target offensive linemen in his recruiting class of 2013, and signed five. Improving depth was incredibly important at a position he thought was "in the red line line in terms of of critical need."
He's now counting on one of those freshmen — Steve Elmer — to start the rest of the way this fall.
Elmer, a natural tackle, earned his first career start Saturday at Air Force and outside of an early false start on fourth and two played well.
"He's a very smart kid, he's not going to have a lot of missed assignments — very conscientious kid," Kelly said. "The other plus is he's long. He's a long athletic kid. He can make up for some deficiencies in terms of some of his techniques, because of his athleticism."
Elmer may wind up back at tackle next year with fifth-year senior Zack Martin moving on to the NFL. When he first slid over to guard, he was a little thrown off but quickly realized he was making too big a deal over the move.
"At first I was like, I don't know what to do," Elmer said. "And then I just realized, wow, it's just one spot over and I know what the other guys are doing, so I should know what I'm doing now."
Martin's been impressed with Elmer's ability to hang with guys three or four years older — and stronger — than him, although the 6-foot-5, 317-pound Elmer certainly isn't tiny compared to the defenders he's facing.
"He's a smart guy, and physically — usually you don't see freshmen, especially offensive lineman, come in and physically be able to compete like he has," Martin said. "Him being in the spring helped a lot too."
Enrolling early helped Elmer ease into things at Notre Dame, both in the weight room and on the field. He got the lay of the land in January as opposed to June, and said he realizes every day how important it was for him to come in early.
Elmer isn't a polished lineman by any stretch, and will admit he needs to slow down and "block what you see" on a number of plays. But it's sort of the same principle that's applied to Jaylon Smith — the athleticism and talent often make up for him being a little rough around the edges, as nearly all true freshmen are.
"But all in all, if you're asking about a true freshman playing," Kelly said, "the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses."