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Football: Changing of the guard

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Last year, Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line arrived ready to dominate, and did just that by powering the run game and protecting rookie quarterback Everett Golson.

This year, some assembly may be required.

The Irish return one of the nation’s best left sides in tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt – both fifth-year seniors are back for one more season before playing football on Sundays. However, the graduation of center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic Jr. created a gaping hole between Watt and senior right tackle Christian Lombard that a number of anxious young players are looking to fill. That influx of inexperienced players has shifted much of the leadership responsibility onto Watt and Martin, something Watt said has forced them to be more vocal on the field.

“The biggest thing is from the communication standpoint, being able to tell those guys what they’re doing wrong and also pointing out the mistakes that we make on the field.” Watt said. “It’s important that Zack and I both demonstrate leadership and toughness.”

The seniors’ leadership should give the line some consistency, even as players are scrambled around the other spots during spring ball. One lineman who has made his case for locking down a starting spot is junior Nick Martin, Zack’s brother. The younger Martin played mostly guard and tackle over the past two years, but now looks to be the favorite to succeed Cave at center.

“Obviously Braxston left big shoes to fill, but Nick has been doing a great job as far as getting us to the line, getting us down and doing a good job with the snap count lately, as well,” Watt said.

Junior center Matt Hegarty has surprised many early in camp by coming on strong to challenge Martin for the job. Hegarty suffered a stroke late last season, after which doctors discovered he was born with two holes in his heart. After a summer of therapy, Hegarty has increased his level of play, forcing offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to take notice.

“I’ve been very impressed with Matt and how he’s been able to maintain through all this,” Hiestand said. “And now you see him getting better. We anticipate he’ll keep climbing and we’re really pleased with what he’s doing.”

Another young player who has helped his cause through spring ball has been junior Conor Hanratty, who has emerged from a pack featuring injured sophomore Ronnie Stanley and early enrollee Steve Elmer to be a frontrunner in the race to line up next to Lombard. Hanratty said focusing on the little details has been the key to his big improvements.

“The key right now is just in fundamentals, and getting better every play,” Hanratty said. “You have to be able to be reliable.”

Each player is looking to use the offseason to prove and assert themselves as individual starters, but Hiestand and Irish coach Brian Kelly are more worried about the offensive line as a whole. With just under five months until Notre Dame opens its season against Temple, every player has gotten the message: In the spring, no spot is safe.

“Nothing is etched in stone in the spring,” Hanratty said. “It’s all about getting your work in, getting used to playing with the other guys and that’s all that’s important right now. We’ll wait until the season starts for everything else.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at [email protected]