Our journey through the Notre Dame position groups moves on to the offense. Before I jump into the numerous playmakers that Coach Kelly will utilize to pressure opposing defenses this fall I will discuss the guys in the trenches that will make it all possible.
Earlier in the summer I was a little concerned about the lack of experience along the offensive line, particularly at Tackle. I have since taken several factors into consideration that I believe will reduce the potential impact of that inexperience.
Our own Rocket89 was the first to start talking me down off the ledge when he astutely pointed out that the two starting offensive tackles that ND lost to graduation weren’t exactly setting the world on fire last fall. In addition this group has a lot of raw talent, and a nice distribution of numbers within the classes which leaves the new staff with a healthy depth chart to develop.
Coach Kelly himself doesn’t seem to be concerned about the quality of players or overall depth along the offensive line as noted in his camp opening presser.
Q. I know you said not to get married to a two-deep. Are there a few key battles in August that are important to what you want to do that you have to see reconciled that you’re looking forward to?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, I think there are. McDonald, Posluszny, Paskorz. That’s going to be an interesting one. I think the one that really you have to look at is the offensive line. I really believe there’s 10 guys in there that can compete for a starting position. We’ll have some guys that will have a little bit of an edge going in.
But if there’s going to be a fluctuation on the charts, it’s going to be on that offensive line because it’s such a competitive environment. Then the safety position. McCarthy, Motta, Slaughter, Harrison Smith. There’s four guys there, there’s only two spots for them. I think that would be the other area.
Listed below are the individual players along the offensive line. Due to Coach Kelly’s propensity for moving these guys around they will just be grouped by what is currently their primary position. Players with an * next to their class will be eligible to apply for a 5th year after graduation. One thing of note is that the only two offensive linemen that will exhaust their eligibility this fall are Center Dan Wenger and Guard Chris Stewart. Let’s take a look.
75 Taylor Dever 6’5" 297 (Senior*) Dever has been waiting in the wings behind Sam Young for three years and appears to be ready to make the most of his opportunity to excel. Dever is battling with fellow senior Andrew Nuss to start at right tackle. The fact that both players have had three years on campus to develop physically should help. Coach Ed Warriner recently stated that he wasn’t concerned about their lack of starting experience due to the system change. "That doesn’t worry as much just because I think what we do on offense is different." I expect that Dever will be a nice surprise at right tackle this fall.
76 Andrew Nuss 6’5" 297 (Senior*) Ditto everything I said about Dever. Nuss moved over to right tackle from left tackle after fellow senior Matt Romine suffered a concussion earlier in camp. Nuss has since been banged up a bit himself and the lack of reps might be the only thing keeping him behind Dever at the moment. Nuss also remains listed as both a Guard and a Tackle and Coach Kelly recently said that they moved Nuss out to tackle because he is "really competitive and moves his feet well." It sounds like the staff sees Nuss as a gamer and I expect we will see him in the rotation on one side or the other.
77 Matt Romine 6’5" 292 (Senior*) Romine was initially in the mix with Dever before suffering a concussion. I expect that once he is a full up round he will be right back in the mix with his classmates. It would appear that Romine is in 3rd place at the right tackle spot at the moment and could be the odd man out amongst the tackles. With both freshmen coming on strong it might be difficult for Romine to fight his way back into the two deep. If he is unable to I still think it is likely that it could prevent him from being granted a 5th year of eligibility for 2011.
70 Zach Martin 6’4" 290 (Sophomore*) While the seniors are all competing for time sophomore Zach Martin quickly locked down a starting role at left tackle. That says a lot about how quickly the former four star recruit from Indianapolis has developed. I suspect he will fare much better than his predecessor did last season. With four years of eligibility remaining Martin coming on strong is a very positive development that could pay dividends on the blind side for the next four years.
64 Tate Nichols 6’8" 303 (Freshman) Nichols is an absolute beast of a kid that has already drawn praise from the coaching staff in camp. This is an interesting development considering that Tate was playing Tight End in high school only a year ago and received little to no love from the recruiting services. Nichols stirred up some "RKG" debate when he switched his pledge from Stanford to ND but not quite to the same degree that Bruce Heggie did. I don’t think anyone expected Nichols to do anything other than redshirt this season but with the seniors banged up Tate has been running with the 2’s at left tackle. With tremendous size and plenty of smarts Nichols could make Brian Kelly look like a genius before all is said and done.
74 Christian Lombard 6’5" 290 (Freshman) Lombard is a highly touted recruit out of Illinois that is also in the mix at right tackle. Coach Kelly is high on both freshmen.
"The freshmen got right in there. Lombard and Tate, better get to know their names because they're really good football players"
The fact that both of these kids are in the mix is a very positive development for the depth chart but I would prefer that they both save a year of eligibility this fall. Offensive linemen tend to benefit more than any other position group from an additional year in the program. But listening to Coach Kelly talk it sounds likely that we will see them in some capacity in 2010. Overall I feel much better about the tackles than I thought I would heading into the season.
Guards are like logisticians. No one notices them unless they screw it up. And when they do screw it up it is typically disastrous. Thankfully I don’t think that will be an issue for the Notre Dame guards this fall.
59 Chris Stewart 6’5" 351 (5th Year) Stewart is the biggest kid on the team and one of the better stories. Stewart will be starting at left guard again this fall while simultaneously carrying the load of a first year law student. He also received rave reviews from Coach Kelly for his work in the weight room during the off season. Kelly claims Stewart can knock out 20 pull ups which is phenomenal at his height and weight. That is a long way to pull 350lbs 20 times! You can’t not like this guy and I expect him to have a great final season for the Fighting Irish.
78 Trevor Robinson 6’5" 295 (Junior) Robinson is a legitimate stud that played his way into a starting role as a sophomore after seeing plenty of action as a true freshman. Like Stewart you rarely notice him because he keeps a low profile and is very good at his job. I expect to see T Rob playing very well at right guard for the next two seasons.
73 Lane Clelland 6’5" 297 (Junior*) Entering his third year in the program Clelland remains a virtual unknown to me. He didn’t play as a freshman and remained off the radar last season. Clelland spent the spring at defensive end, is listed as a tackle, and was absent from the pre-camp two deep. He has since surfaced running with the 2s at left guard. With that resume’ one has to assume he is a capable football player. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do when he spells Stewart this fall.
68 Alex Bullard 6’3" 295 (Sophomore*) Bullard saved a year of eligibility last season and by all accounts he is tough and very athletic. I am looking forward to seeing Alex in the rotation this fall.
57 Mike Golic Jr. 6’3" 290 (Junior*) Coach Kelly has referred to Golic as a guy that they are "cross training" at center and guard. He started camp listed as the #2 left guard but has been spending more time at center the last few days with Wenger banged up. Coach Kelly was complimentary of his play at center on Friday and it will be interesting to see if he can work his way into the rotation somewhere. He may have a hard time getting minutes if everyone ahead of him is healthy.
66 Chris Watt 6’3" 310 (Sophomore*) Watt came to ND as a highly touted guard prospect but has been asked by the staff to also cross train at center to improve the overall depth across the line. Watt is a very athletic interior lineman with four years of eligibility remaining. Like Golic he may have a tough time getting minutes if everyone is healthy this season but I suspect he will be ready if called upon.
51 Dan Wenger 6’4" 298 (5th Year) Wenger filled in some in 2007 and started at center for the entire 2008 season. Shortly after the 2008 season Weis referred to him as a "training room guy" in an ESPN article and by the time the season started he had been bumped out of his starting role by former guard Eric Olsen. One year later and Wenger is back in the fight. Wenger is a capable center but it sounds like the only thing keeping him in the mix to start is Junior Braxton Cave’s continued inconsistency snapping from the shotgun. This will be an interesting battle to keep an eye on.
52 Braxton Cave 6’3" 301 (Junior*) Cave is supposedly the strongest kid on the team and Brian Kelly has praised his ability as a blocker. While I think both Cave and Wenger will play I expect Cave to emerge as the starting center down the stretch if he can tighten up his shotgun snaps.
As I alluded to in the intro I feel a lot better about this unit than I expected to heading into the season. After sitting down and putting all my thoughts together in one post I actually feel even better about it than I did before. While there is a lack of significant game experience at tackle the group as a whole has plenty of bodies, and a nice blend of talent and time on campus to physically mature. The offensive line also has a good distribution of talent across the classes. With only Stewart and Wenger exhausting their eligibility this fall and three more solid verbals on the hook to sign this February it looks like the depth along the offensive line will remain very healthy for the foreseeable future.
In the next installment I will discuss the Tight Ends and Wide Receviers. If you missed the first three installments of this series you can find them at the links below.