Harry Hiestand’s job was already going to be difficult in having to replace offensive line stalwarts in Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. But with Steve Elmer off to Washington D.C. to pursue a job opportunity, Hiestand will have to develop a successful offensive line with only 27 career starts under its collective belt.
The more daunting view may be this: Between Stanley, Martin and Elmer, Notre Dame will have to replace that trio’s 106 combined career starts. Stanley started every one of Notre Dame’s last 39 games, while Martin compiled 37 starts and Elmer 30. Elmer would’ve been Notre Dame’s most experienced returning offensive lineman; that designation now goes to redshirt-senior-to-be Mike McGlinchey, who has 14 career starts. Redshirt-sophomores-to-be Quenton Nelson (11) and Alex Bars (two) are the only other players with any starting experience at the college level.
Notre Dame, during Hiestand’s five-year tenure, hasn’t had a dearth of offensive line experience like the one it’ll face this year. The closest was heading into the 2014 season, the year after Nick Martin and Chris Watt left and the most experienced returning offensive lineman was Christian Lombard (20 starts). Also on that line: Stanley (13 starts), Martin (11 starts), Elmer (four starts), Conor Hanratty (four starts) and Matt Hegarty (two starts).
That 2014 offensive line was probably the least successful since Hiestand took over. It required major changes after the third week of the season — Martin shifted from center to left guard, Hegarty was inserted at center, and Elmer flipped to right guard with Lombard moving to right tackle. This wasn’t a bad offensive line by any means, ranking 32nd in adjusted line yards, 30th in adjusted sack rate and 24th in opportunity rate (more on those numbers here), and the lack of a reliable second tight end or established running back contributed to a ground game that averaged 4.28 yards per carry (70th among FBS teams).
But those 54 starts from 2014 are still double the number Notre Dame has at its disposal in 2016. So without much experience from which to draw, what could Notre Dame’s offensive line look like this fall? Here’s a stab at it:
Left tackle: Alex Bars
Left guard: Quenton Nelson
Center: Tristen Hoge/Sam Mustipher
Right guard: John Montelus/Colin McGovern/Trevor Ruhland/Jimmy Byrne
Right tackle: Mike McGlinchey
There's a possibility Bars, a natural tackle who played guard when Nelson dealt with a sprained ankle last fall, could slide to right guard, opening up left tackle for a competition instead of at the spot Elmer vacated.
If Bars winds up at guard, redshirt-junior-to-be Hunter Bivin or potential graduate student Mark Harrell could compete to play at left tackle. Given Bars competed with Nelson at left guard last year and is coming off a fractured ankle that’ll probably wipe out his spring practice, keeping him at guard could make sense. But coach Brian Kelly once referred to Bars as “one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years, he’s that good,” and those kind of players usually wind up at left tackle.
Don’t discount the possibility of a true freshman pushing for playing time, too. Parker Boudreaux, Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer are all rated by Rivals.com as four-star recruits, and while Notre Dame prefers to redshirt its incoming offensive linemen, Elmer did play as a true freshman 2013 (it helped that he enrolled early, of course).
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Whatever combination of offensive linemen Hiestand & Co. settle on probably won’t be decided until sometime in mid to late August, right around when Notre Dame transitions from preseason camp install work to prepping for its season opener against Texas. But for Montelus, McGovern, Ruhland, Byrne, Hoge, Mustipher, Bivin and Harrell, spring practice will be an important opportunity to build a base on which they can stake their respective claims to a starting job later in the year.
And for Hiestand and Irish coaches, spring practice will mark the beginning of an arduous process to replace so much talent and experience up front.