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Pre-Spring Depth Chart: Offensive Line

As we make our way through the offense it is time to look at the depth chart for the offensive line before spring practices start.

The first post covered the wide receivers, but now we turn our attention to the big boys up front for Notre Dame. Here is the breakdown of the roster as we head towards 2011:

*Denotes 5th year eligibility

Taylor Dever, Tackle, Fifth Year

Andrew Nuss, Guard/Tackle, Fifth Year

Braxton Cave, Center, Senior*

Lane Clelland, Tackle/Guard, Senior*

Mike Golic, Jr., Center/Guard, Senior*

Trevor Robinson, Guard, Senior

Zack Martin, Tackle, Junior*

Chris Watt, Guard, Junior*

Christian Lombard, Tackle, Sophomore*

Tate Nichols, Tackle, Sophomore*

Conor Hanratty, Guard, Freshman

Matt Hegarty, Tackle, Freshman

Nick Martin, Tackle/Guard, Freshman

Dan Wenger, Center, unlikely to be granted sixth year of eligibility

Help Wanted: More Guards!

With a quick scan of the above list you will see that there’s way more tackles than guards going into 2011. Next fall the Irish will have eight out of 13 linemen who are either outright tackles, are more comfortable at tackle, or have spent playing time on the ends of the offensive line.

Of the five offensive linemen signed since Brian Kelly took over in South Bend, only one looks to be a sure thing to play at the guard position.

The situation gets more precarious after 2011 when fifth year senior Andrew Nuss (possible guard on the upcoming two-deep) as well as starting right guard Trevor Robinson all exhaust their eligibility.

That means there will be only two returning guards (Watt and Hanratty) to the team this time next year as the positions stand at this moment (exempting any future recruits of course). You could make it three if you count Mike Golic, Jr. since he will have a fifth year option in 2012 and is currently the backup center and has been listed on the depth at guard before.

Either way, there has to be more bodies at the guard position because the depth there is dangerously thin.

So What’s the Plan?

It doesn’t appear that Brian Kelly and his staff are too worried about recruiting guys who can play guard and guard only, but instead are focusing on bringing in the biggest players available who have a high level of athleticism to succeed in the spread offense.

For example, the half dozen or so offers for 2012 are all out to high school tackles with an average size of 6’6" and close to 290 pounds. Clearly Brian Kelly values height and versatility over anything else in regards to filling the depth out at guard and across the offensive line as a whole.

With the current players on the roster it appears that the best players will play on the line and there won’t be too much restrictions placed on someone being a tackle and unable to move inside. There are notable exceptions of course, including Tate Nichols, who at nine feet tall and the biggest human I’ve seen over the past six months, is likely to stay at tackle no matter what.

So is there anyone on the roster now that will move to guard in 2011?

The answer to that question might revolve around how the coaching staff plans going about replacing the right side of the line in 2012.

The only lost starter from last year is left guard Chris Stewart, and young Chris Watt had the opportunity to play quite a bit as a backup last season and is preparing to start there in 2011.

Now, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever both need an understudy this upcoming season.

It seems like the staff could plug in veterans like Nuss, Clelland, or Golic as backup guards and then rearrange some bodies next spring when some of the younger linemen may be able to step on the field. But will they risk giving minutes to a fifth year senior (or older veteran who may not become a starter in the future) instead of easing a soon-to-be starter on to the field and thus, forcing a younger player into a starting role with little or no career minutes?

Golic is an intriguing player who could play guard and backup someone like Robinson, but what if Braxston Cave gets hurt at some point over the next two years? Golic will have to move to the middle and play center while someone will have to fill his guard spot. And that someone will likely have minimal experience because Golic has been in the two-deep at two different positions for two years.

That’s a lot of two’s right there!

Perhaps the coaching staff is banking on someone like Matt Hegarty to come in and start at tackle as a sophomore and utilize current tackle Christian Lombard on the inside this season. If Hegarty is truly an elite offensive lineman this might not be a bad idea.

Whatever they do, there has to be a plan in place to replace two starters on the right side of the line, train some players at said positions with minutes during the season, and even out the tackle-to-guard imbalance.

I won’t pretend like I have any answers because I’m just throwing ideas out there, but keep an eye out for movement in the spring when practices start.

What Can We Expect from the Freshmen?

We shouldn’t expect anything as all three incoming freshmen are likely to spend a year bulking up, trimming down fat and working their way into the system.

There may be a tiny chance that Matt Hegarty steps on the field in 2011, but that would likely mean he is either phenomenally talented or there are serious injuries to a few players, leaving the coaches little or no choice.

Coach Kelly has mentioned that Hegarty is the picture perfect left tackle, so it will be interesting to see if he immediately goes to work behind Zack Martin or if he will compete for the right tackle spot which will open up during his sophomore year with Dever leaving South Bend.

Also, don’t count out the possibility that Zack Martin switches over to right tackle after 2011 (which he did for an injured Dever last season) forcing a battle for the left tackle starting spot among Hegarty, Lombard, and Nichols in the coming future.

Zack Martin’s younger brother Nick should start out his career as a tackle but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him switch to guard either next year or right out of the gate in fall practice. He’s going to be a work in progress but because of the numbers on the depth chart, Martin might have the ability to play a lot earlier than people think on the interior.

I also think the likelihood of taller athletes like Brad Carrico or Troy Niklas coming over to the offensive side of the ball makes it much more likely that Nick Martin starts out his career inside at the guard position.

The third freshman in Conor Hanratty definitely has the body-type of a guard and has the run blocking skills necessary to keep him at that position. It looks like he desperately needs a college level strength and conditioning program and is a couple years away from playing time, but like Nick Martin’s example, there will be holes in the middle to fill in the relative near future.

Who Needs to Step Up?

The easy choice would be Chris Watt since he’s likely to be the only new starter, but I will have to go with Trevor Robinson.

Depending on who you ask and when you asked them, many experts would have told you Robinson was Notre Dame’s best lineman. There were rumors that he was fighting through injury all season long, but he was wildly inconsistent and seemed to take a step back in 2010.

As a senior and four-year contributor with almost 30 career starts, Robinson has the talent to be a decent NFL draft pick and also has the opportunity to be one of the 2011 team leaders. It would be a much better story if he came out and dominated and fulfilled the promise he showed as an underclassman from 2008 through 2009.

Also, I think the left side of the line is much stronger and the right side needs a little help. If Robinson comes back with a great senior season, the offensive line could be really quite good in 2011.

What’s the Lineup Going to Look Like?

With four starters coming back there shouldn’t be any drama heading into the next season, especially with Chris Watt likely to replace the outgoing Chris Stewart.

In all likelihood, the starting five should be Zack Martin at left tackle, Chris Watt at left guard, Braxston Cave at center, Trevor Robinson at right guard, and Taylor Dever at right tackle.

I really like this unit and think they have a very good chance to be a dominating line if they can live up to their potential. The good news is that there shouldn’t be a ton of moving around and uncertainty at this position like last spring, so these five players should enjoy the benefit of playing and developing together through August practice.

On the left end, Zack Martin is perhaps the team’s best lineman (winning the team award for best offensive lineman at the 2010 awards show) and the exciting part is that he has three more years of eligibility left.

Chris Watt didn’t play a ton of minutes last year, but he played enough to get a good look at his talent. He moves really well, plays physical and should be a great player for the next three years. I thought Chris Stewart struggled at times last season, so even though Watt is a new starter, he could be an upgrade at left guard.

Braxston Cave wrestled the starting spot at center away from fifth year senior Dan Wenger before Wenger went down in practice with concussion problems, and should be among the better centers in the country. Cave brings a wild physicality to the center position that has been lacking in years past, and his future looks bright with two more years of eligibility left.

Nobody has the raw talent that Trevor Robinson possesses and I look for him to play very well during his final season in South Bend. Hopefully he can come into the season healthy and stay that way so that he can show just how much potential he has.

Taylor Dever is probably the weakest link on the line, but he is a serviceable veteran nonetheless. Dever struggled early last season (particularly against Purdue and Stanford) and was the only lineman to miss a start with an injury, but he improved both as the season went on and from the first to fourth quarters.

There may be a small chance that Dever loses his starting spot to some younger players (Lombard or Nichols specifically), but since he was brought back for a fifth year he should be the man at right tackle all season long.

Overall, the starting unit is very good but the storylines over the spring, summer and fall will likely revolve around who is going to fill out the two-deep and who is going to be moved inside to play guard.

Since all three freshmen won’t practice with the team until fall, it is unlikely that they will be in these discussions with the possible exception of Matt Hegarty.

Some of the questions to ask heading into the spring are:

Who is going to back up Robinson and Dever, and will they see minutes in 2011?

Will Golic stay as the primary backup at center and guard too?

Where is Lombard’s future on the line? Will he be moved inside to make room for Hegarty and possibly the taller athletes currently on defense?

Will Nuss and Clelland be used as backups at either tackle or guard and prevent some young players from getting minutes?

Where does Nichols fit in? The right tackle spot opens up after 2011, but Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty were all much highly regarded coming out of high school and seem to have the inside track to start.

Any thoughts on these matters Irish Nation?