SOUTH BEND, Ind. — While Everett Golson and Malik Zaire are the focus of spring practice, there’s an unheralded group that’s allowing Notre Dame to run a fair quarterback competition.
That unit is Notre Dame’s No. 2 offensive line, which offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford pointed to as playing a key role in the Golson vs. Zaire showdown.
“Usually the issue in spring ball is the two offensive lines, you’re playing with four guys (on the second unit) that should never play because you have a couple shoulder surgeries or knee injuries,” Sanford said. “And these guys are playing and we’re able to get meaningful reps without a jailbreak every snap. I think a lot of times you’re playing in Mountain West football or even at Stanford where you have some attrition, there’s times where the second offensive line group, it can be challenging.”
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It’s a ringing endorsement for tackles Hunter Bivin and Mark Harrell, guards Alex Bars, John Montelus and Colin McGovern and center Sam Mustipher that they’re able to compete to the point where whoever the second-team quarterback is in a given practice isn’t constantly being chased by the defense. It’s also a credit to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who’s proven to not only be adept at developing stars like Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley but also those reserves that play a key role in practice.
This is the same Irish unit that, in the weeks leading up to the BCS Championship, only had six healthy scholarship offensive linemen with which to practice. It was one of the reasons coach Brian Kelly pointed to as to why the team was so thoroughly beaten by Alabama, and he sent Hiestand out with an edict to recruit that necessary offensive line depth.
In 2013 and 2014, Notre Dame added nine scholarship offensive linemen and has only lost one player — center Matt Hegarty — with eligibility remaining. The depth is so good that Hiestand and the offense were able to part with Jerry Tillery and ship him over to the defensive line, where he’s thrived as an early enrollee this spring.
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By having that solid play from the backup offensive line, there aren't as many wasted plays with the second-team offense — and that gives Sanford, Kelly & Co. more film and data on which to evaluate Golson and Zaire heading into the summer.
“I just love their competition, I love their fight,” Sanford said, “and I love that it gives us the opportunity to get meaningful reps across the board with both (quarterbacks).”