Foundation forming on Notre Dame's offensive line

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — After having dealt with real-world life-threatening adversity a couple of years ago, something as trivial as a midseason position change wasn’t about to throw Matt Hegarty off stride.

No big deal. Change the stance. Do the job. Execute.

The Notre Dame football team’s offensive line has been starved for stability this season. Its performance against Florida State (157 rushing yards, 470 yards of total offense, three sacks allowed) was a major step in the right direction for the re-tooled unit.

“The guys up front really did a nice job (against Florida State),” said Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock. “We’d, obviously, like to be running for 250 yards a game (the Irish are averaging 162 yards on the ground), or more. But juggling those guys around and trying to get the combination right, it takes some time to gel together.”

Line coach Harry Hiestand, under the direction of head coach Brian Kelly, has done some significant tinkering since the first bye week.

Three victories into the campaign, the objective was to get more of a push in the middle of the line. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley was the only piece to remain in place. Nick Martin went from center to left guard. Hegarty, who had started one game at right guard, was now the center. Steve Elmer, who began the season at right tackle, flip-flopped with Christian Lombard, who was the right guard.

The Irish ground assault in their first three games was misrepresented because Rice’s defense in the season opener was so porous. They gained 281 rushing yards against the Owls, upping the average to 158.

Despite the numbers, Kelly and Hiestand knew things weren’t clicking. Since the alteration, Notre Dame has averaged 166 yards on the ground, highlighted by the effort against a big and powerful Florida State front.

The challenge to build on that momentum continues Saturday against Navy.

While the left side of the Irish offensive line is solid, the questions existed from center on down to the right.

Hegarty, a 6-foot-5, 295-pound senior, is two years removed from a brush with his mortality. He suffered small strokes that were caused by a heart defect. Once surgically repaired, he was cleared to continue playing.

Injuries gave him the opportunity for extensive playing time late last season. Then, he spent all spring at center when Martin was recovering from offseason surgery.

That made this season’s transition much easier than it might have otherwise been.

Lombard, a 6-5, 311-pound graduate student, started 13 games at right tackle in 2012, so moving back there was like going home.

Elmer, meanwhile, has been called “a guard in a tackle’s body” by Kelly. At 6-6 and 315, the sophomore is the prototype of a big-time college tackle. But, for some reason, he didn’t embrace the open spaces of the perimeter.

After being the versatile piece of the line puzzle early in his freshman season, Elmer found his niche as a starter at right guard the last four games after Lombard was injured. That experience allowed this year’s adjustment to be smooth.

Somehow, some way, this reconstructed group has made it work.

“Once in a while in protections, (Hegarty) gets overextended,” Kelly said. “Elmer is really starting to settle in at that guard position. So we feel like we’re getting there.”

“Sometimes, you don’t know what stance you’re getting into when you put your hand down,” Hegarty said with a laugh. “I’ve spent enough time at center that, I spent a day snapping and I was back at it. (I have) a great sense of empathy for all the blocks that you have along the line. You know what’s a tough block (for one guy), so you’ll give a little help here.

“We’re fortunate that the guys we have here are a really tight unit. It made that transition happen a lot faster even than we anticipated. We put in a lot of extra work and were able to speed up the process.”

“It’s a blurred line, at this point, for me,” Elmer said, shrugging his broad shoulders. “It’s getting really comfortable for me again. I’ve had four weeks of playing guard now. I feel like I’m making some decent headway, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“I feel more comfortable being inside again, and getting into the swing of things.

“When I was playing tackle, I was comfortable, too. (At guard), there’s more traffic; a lot more things going on. (Settling in takes) reps, working with the guy next to you.

“I love (the physical) part of playing guard. You can come off (a block) and you’re backed up by somebody, a lot of times. At tackle, you’re kinda on your own, for the most part. You have to be more careful (at tackle).”

“Those guys are gaining confidence in each other,” Denbrock said. “Their communication is a lot better. We’ve done a nice job of sustaining blocks, especially in the Florida State game — better than we had at any time up to this point. That’s against a pretty good defensive front that can play good football.

“This helps their confidence moving forward. It also helps the play-caller. We’re at our best when we have the ability to run it and throw it; and the threat of play-action and the things that we do off play-action.

“We can go faster. We can do more things when that’s a possibility.

“They’re becoming more aggressive; more comfortable.”

“Take a look at (the Florida State) defense,” Hegarty said. “They come to play. They do real well. We felt good about how we were moving the ball against them.

“I had a great feeling going down there. The way the offensive line prepared that week. … We knew it was going to take our best, we wanted to come out (with a win).”

“We came together,” Elmer said. “We had a real good week of practice. Four weeks in (to the new alignment), you should expect to be (cohesive) by then.”

From the get-go, this new grouping showed signs of success. In its first game against Syracuse, the Irish line made sure it came through with the tough yards.

“Syracuse came at us with a lot of junky looks,” Hegarty said. “It was nice to be able to convert (7-of-7 in short-yardage situations) and keep the ball moving. We just kept the drive alive.”

What the offensive line faced in the last four games, especially against Florida State — big-on-big, the one delivering the hardest blow has the advantage — can be forgotten for Saturday’s game against Navy.

Navy’s 3-4 alignment will be a different look for Notre Dame. The Irish linemen will have a 30-pound advantage per man. Still, don’t look for the Midshipmen, even though they give up 171 rushing yards a game, to roll over and wait for Notre Dame to dominate.

“(The size difference) goes back to fundamentals,” Hegarty said. “That’s our primary focus on the line. (We’re going against) guys who move and also play really disciplined. Then, it comes down to fundamentals.

“If you try to muscle them, that’s how they make plays. Their linebackers are real good about flying around and making things happen. You can’t get tied up.

“It’s hard not to (try to muscle over them). You understand that you’re going to get a good surge. But you also have to understand that they’ve got the motor that, if you get ahead of yourself, ‘boom,’ a quick move and they can be off.

“I think smaller guys are a lot more difficult. Big guys, you know what they’re going to do. (The big guys are) going to try to run through you. Smaller guys, they like to mix it up. More variety.”

“(Navy plays) really hard,” Elmer said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes.

“The big thing (with Navy), yeah, there’s (the size advantage). But they’ll play the hardest of any team you’ll see; they’re extremely disciplined. You’ve gotta be on, you’ve gotta be focused. We have to at our best to beat Navy.”

That’s why the new-look Irish offensive line, especially the right side, continues to make positive progress.

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Notre Dame's Steve Elmer (79) and Matt Hegarty (77) line up for a play during the 2014 season. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)