Unity drives progress of offensive line

COMPILED BY TOM NOIE
ND Insider

Numerous notable numbers remain that can help a veteran offensive line to be even better this season following a 2012 campaign that saw Notre Dame come from nowhere to play for a national championship.

The Irish racked up 265 first downs and 5,358 yards of total offense in averaging 25.8 points per game last fall.

The offensive line provided enough protection for the quarterbacks to throw for 2,896 yards, although last year’s starter, Everett Golson, was suspended by the university because of an academic matter and will miss the 2013 season. They opened enough running lanes for the Irish to scamper for 2,462 yards. Notre Dame controlled the ball for an almost of 32 minutes a game, registered twice as many touchdowns (36) as sacks allowed (18), and converted 80 percent of its chances inside the red zone.

But…..

“This team is totally different,” said left tackle Zack Martin. “We're not the same team.”

Still, a number — often said to be the loneliest of all — likely meant the most for the offensive line.

One.

From the time the season started across the Atlantic Ocean in Dublin to the time it closed in Miami Gardens, Fla., Notre Dame trotted out one starting lineup along the offensive line in every game. The same left tackle. The same left guard. The same center. The same right guard. The same right tackle. Every game. Every week.

One.

“Consistency is really important,” said junior Nick Martin, expected to be one of the new starters this season, at center. “We always say that we have to see things through one set of eyes and play as a unit, not as an individual. We've got to be five-for-five on every play.”

That mind-set has been hammered home by offensive line coach Harry Hiestand from the minute he arrived for the spring of 2012.

It wasn't good enough for veteran left tackle Zack Martin to allow a sack on the first series of the season against Navy, and then not allow another the rest of the season. It wasn't good enough for Braxston Cave to bounce back from a foot injury that cut short his 2012 season to start all 13 games. It wasn't good enough for Christian Lombard and Chris Watt to deliver as key components.

If they weren't going to do it together, everything else was a waste of time — and effort. Nothing else mattered. Not the numbers. Not the wins. Not the points or the yards. Nothing.

“Togetherness is a big thing for us,” Lombard said. “There's going to be times when you're down against the wall, and it's just going to be us out there. Coach Hiestand preaches that we all stay together, and we have.”

When winter workouts arrived, it was common to see the offensive linemen together. They would drill together, eat together, hang out away from the field together. See one and you'd likely see three or four more.

They would consistently be the first position group to arrive at practice and the last to leave.

Even during spring, when the pace is less hectic and far more de-pressurized, Zack Martin cut short a trip to training table to gather the guys for an impromptu think session. There, freshman Steve Elmer had just as much input in the meeting room as sophomore Ronnie Stanley or the veteran Watt.

Somewhere, Hiestand was likely smiling at the thought of those guys — his guys — constantly thinking and dissecting the game as one.

“We're just a really, really close group,” Zack Martin said. “Coach Hiestand always harps on, 'We've got to get do this together.' ”

Now it's time for the group to improve. Together.

Besides Nick Martin, there will be another new face on the line, this one somewhere on the right side. Lombard will be a given, but whether he plays guard or tackle comes down to who has the better fall camp — guard Conor Hanratty or tackle Ronnie Stanley. Spring was too short to settle that question.

Zack Martin admitted that the offensive line spent a chunk of preparation time in 2012 driving one another to be more physical on every single play, to bring it as hard on third down as they did on first. The result was a dominant effort.

The next step comes with mastering the intricacies of trenches. Time for the group to have their hands placed on the ground at the right place at the right time on every snap. Time for each guy, whether a guard or a tackle or a center, to understand that they have their heads straight up and not out forward. Time to be even more consistent with the footwork.

When all that falls into place, watch out.

“No one questions our effort or our heart or physicality, (but) we've got to become more technicians,” Martin said. “If you put together that effort and that physicality with technique, it's going to be hard to stop.”

Again.