FOOTBALL

Notre Dame football: Lombard becomes ND's movable part

Al Lesar
ALesar@SBTinfo.com

SOUTH BEND -- Offensive lines don't get a lot of attention until something goes wrong.

The Notre Dame football team's trench crew quietly had plenty of success during last year's 12-1 rampage.

Several critical pieces of that complex puzzle are back for an encore.

And for the second straight year, any spotlight of doubt will be shining right of center.

At 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds, Christian Lombard is the movable part of the Irish line. Bottom line: The senior from Inverness, Ill. (with a year of eligibility remaining after this season), is going to start somewhere, either guard or tackle.

It's just up to Conor Hanratty and Ronnie Stanley -- or even freshman Steve Elmer, for that matter -- to decide where.

Last season, it was senior Mike Golic who was the plug-in starter at right guard. Zack Martin (tackle) and Chris Watt (guard) are anchors on the left side. Nick Martin has eased into his role replacing Braxston Cave at center.

Lombard earned his stripes as a starter at right tackle in 2012.

Besides its effectiveness (generating 190 rushing yards and 412 total offensive yards a game), what made last year's Irish line special was its durability. All five starters reported for work for every Saturday -- rare in a world of bone-crushing blocks and massive defensive linemen.

Depth on the offensive line isn't necessarily one of Notre Dame's strengths this season. Not many programs in the country could afford to lose a front-end guy.

But the Irish do have legitimate competition for that one vacant spot on the right side.

Lombard, who is productive at both tackle and guard, makes the selection process that much easier for head coach Brian Kelly.

"It matters to put the best five on the field," Kelly said of his ultimate goal with the offensive line. "As it relates to Christian, he's going to have to fit with the best five. It's not really about him, but, how do we get the best five on the field?

"It allows us to do: Is it Conor Hanratty (at guard)? Is it Ronnie (Stanley at tackle)? Is it Steve Elmer (at tackle)? Who is it that gives us the best five? We're fortunate that (Lombard) gives us the flexibility for us to be able to have this conversation.

"It's less about: Christian, what do you prefer? And more about: What gives us the best five? We're still in that process right now."

Tall enough to impose his will at tackle, Lombard is still compact enough to have a center of gravity not easily transported from its established position.

"His size allows him... He's not overly long that he can't get in there and play the guard position," Kelly said. "He's not built that he's just a tackle. He's thick-trunked. He can get in there and he can move people. He's got good enough feet that he could play on the edge like he did last year.

"His body-type allows us a little flexibility. You could probably make the case Zack Martin could probably play any one of the positions on our offensive line."

Having that leeway allows Kelly and line coach Harry Hiestand the luxury of sitting back through preseason camp to wait for a clear member of that "best five" to emerge.

That's not to say Lombard isn't involved with the young players' development

"The younger guys come in and start playing with the (first unit): You've gotta just be there for them," Lombard said. "It's tough, but they're here for a reason. They're great players, too. They shouldn't think that they're going against someone who's better than them.

"'All I'm going to do is take my right step and block the guy.'"

Sounds pretty simple. That was the approach Lombard took through his formative years. Two years ago, he was a role player as a backup tackle and special teams player. Confidence grew as his playing time increased. Last year, he became a fixture.

"Finally getting out there playing, having that confidence that I can do this; this is for real," was how Lombard eased into his role. "I'm here for a reason. It wasn't a turning point, more of a validation.

"(Improvement happened by) listening to what (Hiestand) says, and trying to be coachable. Every day; one day at a time. Not focusing on the big picture. Just trying to improve."

The big picture is too clouded to fret about now. Just check the depth chart before every practice and see which spot needs to be occupied today.

"At tackle, you're dealing with more people in space," Lombard assessed. "At guard, they're right in front of you. You have to adjust for that. Fundamentals always have to be sharp. Coach doesn't preach different fundamentals at different positions. Just keep executing and do what you have to do.

"I wish I could say (that transitioning back and forth has gotten easy), but going against those guys (Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day on the Irish defensive line in practice every day), it's not easy."

Most game days won't be as tough. The offensive line's mettle will be sharpened every day.

Obscurity is the ultimate goal.

Christian Lombard takes on a defensive lineman during a spring practice in 2012.