Fighting Irish Offensive Line Depth Key to Present and Future

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Fighting Irish Offensive Line Depth Key to Present and Future
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

A season that's been sabotaged by injuries added another casualty on Saturday, when Notre Dame center Nick Martin went down with a knee injury. The junior will be lost for the rest of the season, the second starter along the offensive line to go down with a major injury, with senior right guard Christian Lombard undergoing back surgery in late October. 

"Nick has a significant knee injury," head coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday during his weekly teleconference via 247sports.com. "He'll be out for this game, and he will not be able to play in the bowl game. We're still getting a little bit more information. We had an MRI. I'll probably have a little bit more specific details, but he's out for the season."

Perhaps it's fitting that Martin's replacement will be a guy many thought would never play football again. Junior Matt Hegarty stepped in for Martin, an amazing accomplishment considering the New Mexico native had two holes in his heart repaired after suffering a stroke barely a year ago.

Hegarty stepped into the game in the first quarter, facing his first significant live action of his career against BYU's Eathyn Manumaleuna and Marques Johnson, two 300-pound nose guards. 

"I thought he did a pretty good job," Kelly said of Hegarty's play. "Certainly going in there first time, you know, against a 320‑pound guy on his nose, he did not go against a four‑down where he was uncovered. He had somebody on his nose virtually the entire three quarters that he was in there, snapped the ball without any mistakes."

Hegarty's insertion into the starting lineup is just another tweak to an offensive line that's seen plenty of commotion. Outside of ironman Zack Martin, who started at left tackle for the 50th straight time on Saturday, Plan A has turned into Plan B, Plan C and now Plan D. 

In training camp, it appeared that the three returning starters—Zack Martin at left tackle, Chris Watt at left guard, and Lombard at right tackle— would man their same positions. But Brian Kelly decided to shift Lombard inside to guard, opening up the right tackle job for sophomore Ronnie Stanley.

Lombard's injury forced true freshman Steve Elmer into the starting lineup at right guard. Complicating matters further was fifth-year senior Chris Watt's torn PCL, an injury that forced Conor Hanratty into the lineup. Hanratty played well enough to get the start at right guard on Saturday, sharing time with Elmer. 

As the Irish entered November, a veteran offensive line featured one veteran and four first-year starters. Irish fans have seen how that story goes. (Remember 2007?) Yet somehow, things stayed on track, a credit to veteran offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. 

"I think it could be an absolute disaster," Kelly said candidly. "If you think about the entire right side as well as missing Chris Watt for a game. You're talking about three and four different guys going in there on the offensive line at times, and Coach Heistand has done an incredible job of putting this together as a unit."

USA TODAY Sports
Harry Hiestand took over as offensive line coach before the 2012 season.

Necessity is the mother of invention. And the rash of injuries that hit the Irish front line could turn into a saving grace as Notre Dame has gotten a jump start on what life after Zack Martin and Chris Watt will be like. A bright future could look even brighter, with Elmer, Hanratty and Hegarty all looking like guys that can and will contribute. 

If anyone's looking to validate Kelly's decision to let Ed Warinner leave Notre Dame and head to Ohio State, the offensive line's performance this year has done it. In addition to coaching up a young roster that's going to have nine first or second-year players on it next season, perhaps what Hiestand has done best is bring an attitude adjustment to a position group that looked too finesse under Warinner.  

In a revealing interview with the student-run Observer, Watt talked about the changes that Hiestand implemented

“When Coach Hiestand came in, he did a great job of turning the offensive lineman culture around, as far as how we work together, and things like that," Watt told the Observer“With Coach Hiestand it’s, ‘Alright, practice is over. Time to go get some extra work in, go eat and get some more work in with film.’”

Heistand's offensive line will face its biggest challenge of the season on Saturday, against a Stanford front seven that's one of the most physical in the country. But as the unit's season-best performance against BYU showed, they could be rounding into form just in time. 

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