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August 4, 2013

Just one right answer?

An emergency measure in April may inspire a new look in August.

When Ronnie Stanley started at left guard in the Blue-Gold Game for an injured Chris Watt, it looked like a stopgap for a coaching staff just hoping to get out of spring ball healthy. Yet as Notre Dame opens training camp on Monday, the 6-foot-6, 318-pound sophomore tackle could be a solution at right guard.

“Ronnie Stanley is kind of a freak,” said offensive tackle Zack Martin. “He’s very athletic. He’s a good football player. I feel like you could plug him in anywhere.”

However Notre Dame’s offensive line shakes out during the next month under the direction of Harry Hiestand, it appears the Irish assistant will have more options than last fall. The Irish went to the bench sparingly last season and started the same five every game.

Martin remains a lock at left tackle with Watt beside him. According to Brian Kelly, there isn’t much thought to moving Christian Lombard from right tackle. That leaves right guard and center up for grabs, with Nick Martin the likely winner at center with guard a bigger question mark.

“I think coach Hiestand is going to try to get the best five guys that are ready to contribute on the field,” Watt said. “This year I could see him playing a few more guys than he did last year because a lot of guys are ready.”

Conor Hanratty held down the right guard position all spring while Stanley worked at left tackle behind Martin. But over the summer Stanley shifted to right tackle, flipping with Steve Elmer. Kelly hinted that the early enrollee could be in the mix too.

“We'll get into camp and see how that position solidifies itself,” Kelly said. “(Stanley and Elmer) are certainly capable of playing guard and tackle.  We'll evaluate that as we go.

“If we want to get the best players on the field, we can include those guys in the mix if we think that they are capable of doing that. Great flexibility would be my answer, but we can do a number of things on that right side.”

If the Irish open against Temple with two Martins, Watt, Stanley and Lombard as the starting five, it would mean the offensive line would average 311.4 pounds.

Compare that to the starting offensive line in Kelly’s first game at Notre Dame of Zack Martin, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson, Taylor Dever and Chris Stewart. That line averaged 306.8 pounds, skewed by Stewart at 351. From that group only Stewart weighed more than 305 pounds. From this group only Nick Martin weighs less.

“I think we made a transition a bit last year to be more physical,” Zack Martin said. “People saw that as the year went on and kind of taking the identity of being a physical offensive line. We’ve been working all summer, been drilling it like crazy and continuing to follow that trend of being a physical line.”

Both Martin and Watt believe this year’s line can be better despite losing Cave and Mike Golic Jr. The group returns more total starts than last season and another 12 months of Hiestand’s instruction.

“He’s starting to trust us a little bit more, practicing his techniques when he’s not here,” Watt said. “I think just being together every day after workouts, working on scheme stuff, working on our technique, I think it’s going to make us a better line.”

Statistically, that means Notre Dame must go beyond last season’s 189.4 rushing yards per game, the program’s best output since 2000. The Irish have improved their rushing output every season under Kelly. Sacks allowed improved as last season went on, six allowed in the season’s final seven games versus 12 allowed in the first six games.

With Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty, Elmer, Stanley and Hanratty vying for the two open spots at center and right guard, Notre Dame’s veterans believe the Irish have the ingredients for a high quality line, in part because the competitors are better.

“I think there’s gonna be great competition,” Zack Martin said. “Christian’s back and he really finished the year strong. To keep him developing as a force on that side and getting better, and also the competition that’s going to be at right guard and center is gonna be awesome.

“Anytime you can go into camp and have good competition with multiple guys that can play, it’s good for an offensive line.”





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