COMMENTARY | Thanks to quality recruiting by Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame staff, the Fighting Irish are setup to benefit both in the short term and the long term from quality, depth and flexibility across the entire offensive line.
Starting this upcoming 2014 season, the Irish have quality at every position on the line. At left tackle, Ronnie Stanley is predicted to be a star. The buzz in some circles is that it’s hard to imagine Stanley staying around for all three years of eligibility that he has remaining (Stanley is what most other schools consider a redshirt sophomore)…and depending on how great he actually plays this season, Notre Dame might even be lucky if he stays around for two more seasons. Although I have absolutely no reason to know better than anybody else, my first instinct says he’ll be around at least through 2015…even if he doesn’t come back in 2016 for a fifth year.
At right tackle, the Irish have options. This spring they are trying to see if redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey is ready and reliable. All the reports seem to indicate that having come from a smaller high school program with perhaps a lower level of competition, there is a transition there for McGlinchey. But the reports also seem to indicate that the 6’9″ 300 pound athlete is certain to be a star. The only question might be whether it’s staring this season or next. If McClinchey is ready and can be depended on, Christian Lombard (and Steve Elmer) can play guard. If McClinchey is not ready, then Lombard (or Elmer) can move over to right tackle. My guess would be Lombard, since he started at right tackle throughout Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season back in 2012, before moving to right guard last season (also because the staff really seems to want to allow Steve Elmer a chance to settle in at left guard).
At center, Nick Martin is facing a challenge from Matt Hegarty, but it’s fairly safe to assume that Nick Martin will win that battle. The younger brother of future NFL lineman and potential first round pick Zack Martin has been out with all spring while recovering from an MCL tear that he suffered late last season. He was absolutely solid at center last season, however, and he’s expected to be even better this year. So, the Irish definitely have depth at center, but the question for Hegarty over the next two seasons (he and Nick Martin both have two more years of eligibility remaining) is whether or not Hegarty might be able to win a starting spot at guard.
Assuming McClinchey starts this season at right tackle, Notre Dame will have four guys to compete for two guard spots: Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard, Matt Hegarty,and Connor Hanratty. Hanratty absolutely has a chance, but the most likely bets are the other three. If McClinchey isn’t ready this season, then Christian Lombard likely will move out to right tackle and Elmer and Hegarty will most likely start at guard. If McClinchey does start at right tackle, then my bet would be on Elmer at left guard (next to Ronnie Stanley…just like last season on the right side) and Lombard at right guard (where he started seven games in 2013). No matter what, the Irish look to have quality, flexibility and depth at tackle, center and guard headed into the 2014 season.
But the Irish have recruited so well that the future looks quite bright far into the future. The Irish are basically set at offensive tackle for at least the next four years. This year’s starters will be either Stanley and McClinchey or Stanley and Lombard. Next season’s starters will likely be Stanley and McClinchey. And, although he hasn’t even put on a college football uniform yet, there’s reason to think that, in 2016 and 2017, the starters might be McGlinchey and incoming freshman Quenton Nelson (an absolute stud). Don’t count out freshman Hunter Bivin or a couple of the other guys on the Irish roster yet, but the point is that the Irish are pretty much set at tackle for the next four (or even five) years.
Guard and center aren’t quite as clear in the long term, but there is still a wealth of quality options. If the Irish are lucky, Elmer will likely stay around at left guard for three more seasons (through 2016). Hegarty could easily start next year, in 2015, at right guard…if not sooner than that. And Hanratty is likely to offer some quality depth over the next couple of years, as well. Players get hurt and Hanratty is not a bad insurance policy at all. He’s a good player. Beyond 2015, once Hegarty has graduated, Elmer will still have another year of eligibility and there will be multiple highly-ranked players, such as incoming freshmen Sam Mustipher or Jimmy Byrne, to choose from. Rising sophomore John Montelus could also project at guard (and still has four years of eligibility remaining). But, Montelus could also compete with Mark Harrell at center in 2016, after Nick Martin has graduated.
Notre Dame has done a phenomenal job of recruiting the offensive line under Brian Kelly (completely in contrast to the Ty Willingham years that many die-hard Irish fans still remember). The Irish have quality, depth and flexibility at every position on the line…and that should mean big things in the future for the Irish offense. As a Falcons fan, I’m not sure how confident I feel about Brian Van Gorder replacing one of the most successful defensive coordinators in the country, but with a stable of quality depth one the offensive line (plus a trio of mobile quarterbacks that fit his offensive system), at least Brian Kelly’s offense should finally start clicking for many years to come.
Doug Pancoast is a freelance writer (and author of “100 Controversial Truths About Politics and Culture in America”) who has been following the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for 25 years.