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March 4, 2014

Lombard's time to lead arrives

It's a spring of getting back to status quo as well as a spring of change for 6-foot-5, 315-pound fifth-year-senior-to-be Christian Lombard.

Gone are veterans Zack Martin and Chris Watt, who ran the show and controlled the tempo for the offensive line, particularly in 2012-13 as seniors/fifth-year seniors.

Lombard's surgically-repaired back is fit and ready to go without limitations.

What hasn't changed, at least after one day of spring practice in the Loftus Sports Center, is the position Lombard played in '13 before the back problems became acute enough to force surgery, which shut him down for the last half of the season.

"I've been playing guard now for over a year, so I'd say I'm a guard," said the Fremd High School product out of Palatine, Ill. "I really haven't taken a lot of reps at tackle. I have no problem with either one."

Whether Lombard ends up at right tackle, which is where he played during Notre Dame's 2012 national championship run, or right guard, where he started seven games in '13 before the surgery, Lombard has a new role.

He is the only fifth-year senior on the line. He is the only two-season starter on the line. He is the only member of his class among the offensive linemen.

"I'd say my strength isn't necessarily that of a vocal leader," Lombard said. "I try and lead by example and just be that same guy every day. I think that's an important trait."

It's a trait that the soft-spoken-by-nature Lombard was able to observe and assimilate now that Martin, in particular, has taken his disciplined game to the next level.

"Zack was an example guy," Lombard said. "He definitely talked, too, but he was the same guy in and out, every single day. Consistency was his big deal. Guys would try and emulate what he would do, coming in with that professional attitude. He was just like he's going to be on the next level. He was a professional all the way around."

It's an approach that fits the 2009 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year as well. The No. 4-rated offensive tackle by Rivals coming out of Fremd, Lombard has quietly gone about his business along the offensive line, saying little but producing at a high rate as a 20-game starter heading into his final year of eligibility.

"It's definitely different, just from the standpoint of not having two good friends next to you off the field and on the field," Lombard said. "They've moved on and they're making a career for themselves. It's part of life. I'm not a big talker by nature, but it's something that I have to evolve into and start to do."

It will be much easier now that Lombard is healthy. He knew it was going to be a long and difficult 2013 season with his back issues, which were notable but not unbearable heading into fall camp. After the seventh game of the season against USC, he had no choice. It was time to pull the plug.

"It was just one of those nagging injuries that I decided to play through that finally gave in," Lombard said. "It came on after last spring ball. I didn't know what it was until we started connecting the dots with the symptoms. It didn't get worse for a while, and then at a certain point, it started going downhill.

"After the USC game, I couldn't go anymore. That was it. (The surgery) was something that needed to happen. I was able to walk right after the surgery. There were some fragments from the disc that had come off. It was a classic herniated disk."

Approaching five months removed from the surgery, Lombard is good to go.

"I couldn't lift for a couple of months," Lombard said. "I was doing movement stuff right after surgery. I wasn't bound to a bed. I was pretty active.

"I don't have to worry about injuries or anything like that now. I just need to worry about getting better. It's just getting back into football shape."

Lombard is not the only upperclassman along the offensive line, but he is the oldest and most experienced of the group. Interior offensive linemen Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty are fourth-year seniors. Martin started the first 11 games of '13 before suffering a knee injury, which was one of the dominoes that fell, along with Lombard's injury, and propelled Hanratty and Hegarty into the lineup. Ronnie Stanley, a junior who opened at left tackle Monday, has 13 starts under his belt at right tackle.

Theoretically, Lombard could end up at right guard, right tackle, left guard or left tackle.

"In spring ball, stuff like that is going to happen," said Lombard of the mixing and matching possibilities. "We only have 10 guys, so we're going to be shuffling in and out. We don't really have a set lineup at this point. There are a lot of young guys, so we're just trying to see who fits best at what position.

"We'll have some more guys in there for the upcoming season. We'll have some real depth. But like I said, worrying about positions isn't the main thing right now. We're just worrying about fundamentals and playing football."

Wherever he aligns, it's up to Lombard and the other upperclassmen to succeed Martin in the ringleader department.

"We've all gotten closer this off-season," Lombard said. "It's a great group of guys. We always have great guys in here. It's just exciting to grow with them."






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