2013 review: Notre Dame started the same five offensive linemen in all 13 of its 2012 games, but had to play most of its depth chart last fall. Only left tackle Zack Martin and right tackle Ronnie Stanley started every game; fellow opening week starters in left guard Chris Watt (knee), center Nick Martin (knee) and right guard Christian Lombard (back) all suffered injuries and missed time.
But those injuries opened the door for a few guys who should see increased roles this coming fall. Freshman Steve Elmer, a natural tackle, slid into the lineup for Lombard and started six games. Matt Hegarty replaced Martin at center and held his own against the front sevens of BYU and Stanford. Conor Hanratty earned minutes as Watt's replacement for a few games, too.
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It's telling that only one FBS team (Toledo) allowed fewer sacks than Notre Dame. Despite featuring a less-than-mobile quarterback in Tommy Rees, Notre Dame's offensive line only allowed eight sacks -- and while Rees was skilled at getting his linemen into the right looks in pass protection, the unit still had to execute. And despite those significant injuries, this group executed pretty well.
Departures: Zack Martin, Chris Watt
2014 outlook: Finding replacements for longtime starters in Martin and Watt certainly is a difficult task, though Notre Dame does appear to have enough talent on its depth chart to fill out the left side this fall. Elmer is a favorite to land one of the two positions -- it would seem to make sense he'd move back to tackle, though we'll get a better idea of his future this spring.
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Hanratty has the most experience and Hegarty could always slide over to guard, though he'll likely stay at center for spring practice as Nick Martin's recovery from a torn MCL continues. Rising sophomore John Montelus could work his way into the starting lineup at guard, too.
Notre Dame does have some flexibility, with Lombard and Elmer able to play either guard or tackle. Stanley, who turned in a solid season last fall -- his first as a starter -- could flip from right tackle to left tackle. And there's more talent infusing the depth chart, too, with Mike McGlinchey, Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern shedding redshirts while a talented group of freshmen come to campus.
X-Factor: This isn't a slight at other Irish coaches, but no group is more complimentary of its position coach than Notre Dame's offensive linemen are of Harry Hiestand. Current and former players rave about Hiestand's no-bull coaching style and the expectation for success he sets; in plainer terms, getting to play for him again was a big reason why Zack Martin passed on entering the NFL Draft in 2013 (Martin, now, is projected by a handful of mock drafts as a first-round pick).
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That being said, it's easy to look good as a coach when you have Martin and Watt locking down the left side of your line for three straight years (Hiestand began coaching at Notre Dame in 2012). But the talent is there, and Hiestand seems to be a good bet to coach those guys into having on-field success.