Irish Position Rankings: O-Line

Irish Position Rankings: O-Line

Depth and well-tiered talent abound but our second-ranked position group for Notre Dame in 2014 is not without questions.

#2 -- Offensive Line

Fifth-year senior Christian Lombard; seniors Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, and Nick Martin; juniors Ronnie Stanley and Mark Harrell; sophomores Hunter Bivin, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey, Colin McGovern, and John Montelus; incoming freshmen Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne, Sam Mustipher, and Quenton Nelson.

Excluding Lombard, among the program's remaining 14 scholarship lineman, only Elmer does not have an extra season of eligibility beyond his listed class. Elmer started four games last season as a true freshman.

Standout: Ronnie Stanley

Stanley remains under-the-radar nationally but the massive athlete is poised to become Notre Dame's best offensive linemen entering his third season with the program. (Elbow surgery as a true freshman in 2012 is expected to provide Stanley with a fifth-year option for the 2016 season despite his appearance in two September contests.)

A 13-game starter at right tackle last fall, Stanley's move to the left side is not without concerns -- namely, he won't be as productive or consistent as the player that occupied the same position last season, all-time program great, Zack Martin. But Stanley is one of three clear-cut starters on a line blessed with an embarrassment of riches -- seven competitors will vie for starting jobs, six of which started multiple games last season, all of which were awarded at least four recruiting stars per Scout.com

Stanley is as close to a sure thing as there is considering he's a second-year starter switching positions.

Next In Line

Senior center Nick Martin would have challenged Stanley's status as the unit's top dog if not for a mid-November knee injury last season, one that required surgery and kept him from competitive action last spring.

Martin enters his second season as the line's starting pivotman and had emerged as one of the unit's rocks prior to injury last fall -- his progress from Game One through Game 11 indicated he'd not yet approached his ceiling as a player.

Joining the pair will likely be Lombard, a 20-game starter (13 at RT in 2012; 7 at RG in 2013) who's recovering from multiple surgeries since he last played in a 14-10 October 18 win over USC last fall. A back injury (one he fought through for several months spring, summer, and for part of the season) felled Lombard near the end of October while a subsequent wrist injury knocked him of the bulk of spring ball.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Lombard's starting spot was not in real jeopardy, though that's assuming the veteran leader is at full strength despite intermittent time away from the weight room over the last 10 months.

Elmer (LG or RT), McGlinchey (RT), Hegarty (G), and Hanratty (G) will thus compete for the remaining two starting spots. Most agree Elmer will start at either left guard or right tackle (more on that in the sections below).

Regardless, Kelly is in no hurry to cement roles.

"I kind of like competition right now," he noted in June. "We’re okay with seven, because those are young guys. We want to keep them competing, and I like the fact that we have that depth on the offensive line, finally, because we’ve been on the other side of it as you guys know, we kind of like the situation we’ve created -- a very competitive situation."

Additional Depth

The next wave of Irishmen up front might be more impressive than the current crop, with a nine-player collection of four- and five-star prospects filling out the sophomore and freshman classes. Only Elmer has played among them, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has an enviable challenge afoot -- finding players No. 8, 9, and 10 to fill out the Game Week two-deep depth chart.

The off-season progress of redshirt-freshmen John Montelus (2013 shoulder surgery) and Colin McGovern (knee surgery following his prep career) are key to this end. Both have the talent to crack the two-deep (Kelly spoke well of McGovern near the end of spring 2014) but neither is far ahead of their incoming freshmen competitors after both fought through rehab last season while toiling on the scout team. Montelus rarely suited up for practice in 2013.

X-Factor -- Mike McGlinchey Lombard could qualify here as well but we're assuming he'll be nearly 100 percent at some point in August camp. McGlinchey's future potential is intriguing but can he approach it in 2014? Would the line be better as a whole with Lombard back at right tackle to act as a stabilizing presence, thus allowing seniors Hegarty and Hanratty to alternate at right guard? In other words, is McGlinchey a year away?

Camp Questions

Will McGlinchey be "better" at right tackle than either Hegarty or Hanratty is at guard? Will Martin be close to full strength after tearing his PCL on November 23? Can Hegarty, a career backup center until Martin was injured, force his way into the lineup at guard? Are seven potential starters better than five certain? Wither Conor Hanratty, who often out-performed his heralded teammates at guard late last season? How much will Notre Dame miss Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side? Is Ronnie Stanley among the team's five best overall players, and will he prove it from the outset?

Best-Case Scenario

McGlinchey wins the right tackle role allowing Elmer and Lombard to settle in at guard…Hegarty and Hanratty both play weekly off the bench in relief of the interior trio, and our presumed "No. 8" Hunter Bivin gets his feet wet spelling both tackles…A fourth tackle (Nelson?) emerges but is not pressed into game action…Redshirt-freshmen Montelus and McGovern close the gap on their senior competitors at guard and Mustipher develops as the center of the future (2016).

The unit loses just one player, Lombard, as each member of the senior trio proves himself enough to earn a fifth season and the 2015 Irish offensive line ranks as the deepest in the nation.

Worst-Case Scenario

Seven potential starters remain in limbo throughout much of August, largely because none from the Elmer/McGlinchey/Hegarty/Hanratty quartet emerges above the fray…Lombard and Martin aren't yet at 100 percent when Michigan rolls into town on September 6…Stanley's potential at left tackle remains unrealized early, his play paling in comparison to that of his predecessor, All-American Zack Martin…Neither starting guard approaches graduated stalwart Chris Watt in terms of run-blocking prowess and the line thus falls prey to the dreaded "P-words" -- potential not realized as production.

Out on a Limb

Hunter Bivin (T), Quenton Nelson (T), and Sam Mustipher, (C) fill out the official game week, two-deep depth chart. Mustipher though will be withheld from action as Hegarty, a guard competitor this season, is the no-doubt backup center to Martin should the need arise.

Nelson need not play either, provided the top eight non-freshmen linemen remain in good health. The unit is blessed with great versatility, allowing Kelly and Hiestand to preserve a season of eligibility for the rookies if desired. Elmer and Martin will play at an exceptionally high level in November, though not in September.

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