20 For a Title: Finding the Best 5

Martin (right) battles freshman OL Mike McGlinchey

Notre Dame kicks off its season in 16 days and Irisheyes.com has identified 20 crucial developments if the Irish are to return to the BCS Championship game. Today's installment: finding cohesion up front.

"I think it matters we put the best five on the field. As it relates to Christian, he's going to have to fit with the best five. It's not about him as much as how we get the best five on the field. -- Head coach Brian Kelly on the final two pieces of his offensive line

The "best five" plan, or "put the best players on the field" is a tactic universally backed by any team's fan base. Execution of such a plan and its eventual positive outcome, however, isn't easily attained.

Thanks to the versatility of senior right tackle Christian Lombard, it appears plausible for the 2013 Irish offensive line, a unit looking to replace two 5th-year seniors from its interior ranks.

"It's not bad," said Lombard of the transition. "It's just being on your toes, being sharp. I'm going against a lot of great guys in Sheldon (Day), Stephon Tuitt, and Lou (Nix). It's tough, but just being coach-able, being sharp mentally and physical is key."

Lombard noted the biggest adjustment is the lack of space -- and therefore the prevalence of banging shoulder pads -- with which he must contend.

"It's close quarters. Guys are on top of you," he said of right guard. "You have to understand they'll be coming from a different spot, but the fundamentals (offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand teaches us doesn't change position from position."

Lombard's potential move to guard would technically place three first-time starters in consecutive positions from center down the right side of the offensive front. That's not a concern according to his head coach.

"That's not really in the evaluation process," Kelly said. "Because (new center) Nick (Martin), his workings are with that whole five. It's not just the one guy to his side. He's scooping left, he's scooping right, calling protections, so it really wouldn't matter."

Kelly noted Lombard can move to guard because he has a body type not soley suited to the modern offensive tackle. (Lombard was the No. 2 ranked offensive guard prospect by Scout.com exiting high school.)

"He's not overly long where he can't go in there and play the guard position,. He's thick-trunked, he can get in there, move people, and he has good enough feet where he can play on the edge where required like he did last year at the tackle position. His body type allows that flexibility.

"You could probably make the case Zack Martin could play any one of the positions along the offensive line," Kelly added. "Its probably a little harder for (Steven) Elmer and (Ronnie) Stanley to play inside -- though they could -- its a little more of a transition for those guys than say Christian Lombard because of his size."

The sophomore Stanley, a four-star prospect that played through September last season before suffering an elbow injury, is the chief right tackle option who could force Lombard to shift inside. Otherwise, junior guard Conor Hanratty would likely win the right guard role and Lombard would remain at the right tackle spot he occupied last season.

The competition is unique in that its between Stanley at tackle and Hanratty at guard -- whomever proves more capable at his position likely determines Lombard's slotting for September.

New…but only to us

Lombard is assured a starting role, location to be determined. Another spot presumed in heavy competition heading into August camp was center, that due to the departure of 5th-year senior and Kelly-era starter Braxston Cave.

But the competition between Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty has quickly taken on the reality of a pecking order. Martin is the starter; Hegarty -- sidelined for four months last off-season due to heart surgery -- his backup.

"He doesn't seem like a first-time starter, just the way he handles himself," said Kelly. "He seems like he's been in there for a couple of years. Its really quite impressive.

"He's given us the opportunity to evaluate him against one of the best nose guards in the country in Louis Nix. He holds his own going against great competition. Even when Kona (Scwhenke) is in there, he's challenged every day.

"He holds up very well, knows the offense very well; is not a guy that makes mistakes. Extremely conscientious. Very fit, can play every play. And he plays to the echo of the whistle. Very mature kid. When you look at Nick Martin, you don't think of a guy (that's a first-time starter). When you mentioned that, I was thinking 'Who are you talking about?'

Martin played last year as the line's top backup, serving at both guard and tackle. His eight-plus months since working at center have apparently been a rousing success, though one crucial development remains.

"Getting the first (game) snaps under my belt will make it easier, obviously," Martin noted. "I definitely think that's a challenge but we have three long-times starters, great leaders, friends, they make it easy to keep everyone on the same page."

The burden of keeping those friends on the same page, especially before the whistle, now falls on Martin's shoulders.

"For two years I was kind of moved around and being in the middle now, I know everyone's angles and where they're supposed to go, who they're going to (block)," he said. "It's nice to know where everyone is kind of going to be."

Off the field, the answer to that query is obvious.

"If you go somewhere, you're always with the offensive linemen, we travel in packs," Martin joked. "Pretty much everywhere we go there's always two or three of us."

Two or three but in search of the best five.

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