Notre Dame football shuffling players along offensive line to find ‘best five’

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It looks like a modified game of musical chairs, but there’s a very specific purpose behind it.

If Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s widespread, penciled-in offensive line changes stick, the eighth-ranked Irish (3-0) could line up Saturday night against Syracuse (2-1) with four linemen in new places.

Well, kind of new.

The teams meet in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Graduate student right tackle Christian Lombard and sophomore right guard Steve Elmer would flip spots. Senior center Nick Martin would move to left guard, with senior guard Matt Hegarty taking over at center.

The only starting offensive lineman who would remain is junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley.

Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly

“I think what we were looking for, more than anything else, is that we wanted to be able to be more physical inside,” Kelly said. “You have to move some pieces around. You have to give something up to get something.

“We may find out that we don’t want to give up what we have to give up to get the more physicality of Elmer and Martin at the guard position. That’s where we are right now.”

In all but Martin’s case, those players actually have more career starts at their newly modified positions than the ones they had been playing earlier this season.

Lombard has 13 career starts at right tackle, comprising every game from the 2012 title game season, with nine career starts at right guard. Elmer has four at right guard as opposed to three at right tackle, while Hegarty has two at center and one at right guard.

He also spent the entire spring at center when Martin was out with an injury.

All 14 career starts for Martin have come at the position he apparently is leaving, though he did work extensively at tackle and some at guard as a backup in 2012.

Sophomore tackle Mike McGlinchey, perhaps the offensive lineman with the highest perceived ceiling but no starting experience, remains on the edge of the conversation.

“We’re still in the process of figuring out what the best five are on the offensive line,” Kelly said.

The old configuration clearly wasn’t working.

After rushing for 281 yards and 6.7 per carry against Rice, Notre Dame labored in the running game against both Michigan (54 yards, 1.7 per carry) and Purdue (139 yards, 3.7).

In the passing game, the Irish have already allowed six sacks in three games — two fewer than all of last season when a much-less mobile quarterback (Tommy Rees) ran the offense.

That doesn’t count the many times this year’s starter, senior Everett Golson, has escaped the rush and scrambled for positive yards. The fact that he’s two carries away from leading the team in rushing attempts pretty much tells the story.

“I think if they were all in new positions, that would be more concerning,” Kelly said, “because now it’s an adjustment that would take so much longer and one that you may be hesitant to make at this time of the season.”

Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images
Golson’s mobility has helped cover up some of the offensive line’s ineffectiveness.

As it is, chemistry won’t likely come overnight.

“It’s no different than a quarterback coming in and working with new wide receivers,” said Aaron Taylor, former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman and current CBS Sports college football analyst.

“It’s the same routes and breaks, but there are unspoken communication and chemistry that take place, and that’s even more significant when you’re talking about offensive linemen.

“It’s the only position in football where five have to function as one. If one of those five breaks down, all five break down. It’s a sack, a negative play. Whereas a receiver can make a great catch even if the quarterback doesn’t make a great throw.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how quick the line can develop that chemistry. The luxury of a bye week will significantly soften that learning curve. And I think [line coach] Harry Hiestand is a fantastic coach. It’s clear that they needed to move some people around, but it could take two to three weeks to get into a groove.”

They’ll get their first stiff test well before that.

Saturday’s opponent, Syracuse, is the top-ranked sacking team on ND’s schedule (ninth nationally) and will be followed by Stanford (49th, but with the potential to move up significantly). The Cardinal were fifth nationally in 2013.

The Orange also have one of the top run defenses (26th), at least statistically at the moment, that ND will face the rest of the season.

“Next year maybe there are guys ready to play those [original] positions and we move them back into the other,” Kelly said. “But right now, as we stand, the eye is toward getting better each week and progressing. And we felt like we needed to get better.”

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