Steve Elmer building balance at right guard for Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Split seconds and single steps can often be the difference in a good block or a missed assignment.

It’s in those quick and crucial moments where Steve Elmer wants to get better.

“It took me a while to figure it out, but I think I’ve made a couple important steps this spring and it’s mostly focusing on different things,” said Elmer, who is slated to begin his junior season as Notre Dame’s starting right guard.

“I kind of cleared my mind and made sure I’m focused on things that will help me block this play.”

A cluttered mind can cause hesitation for even the smartest offensive lineman, and Elmer certainly doesn’t lack intelligence. He speaks with disappointment when admitting he slipped off the Dean’s List last semester when his grade-point average dipped below a 3.8.

But acing an exam requires a bit different skill set than mastering maneuvers in the football trenches.

“When you’re taking a test, you have time to think about things and reason it out,” Elmer said. “That’s a lot different. You can do that in the film room. There’s definitely a place for that. But once you’re on the field, you gotta be right now. You gotta go.

“It’s not just knowing what you’re doing, because I felt comfortable with the assignments, but realizing what’s going on with the defense right now and being able to make a snap decision.”

Much like quarterbacks need to quickly read coverages, offensive linemen need to recognize shifts and alignments in the defensive front seven. With success and experience, the process becomes as much instinctual as cognitive.

Settling in at right guard should allow Elmer to develop in those areas. Elmer, who was initially recruited as an offensive tackle, started four games at right guard as a freshman. At the beginning of last season, Elmer moved back outside to right tackle. He started the first three games of 2014 at the position before moving back to right guard during a bye week. He stayed there for the remainder of the season, and his future with the Irish seems to have solidified there.

“The biggest thing last season with moving to purely guard was knowing the subtleties of the position and the assignments of the system from the right guard spot,” Elmer said. “That was the most important thing — not having to focus on multiple spots.”

With the focus narrowed, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Elmer hopes to become a well-rounded blocker. An up-and-down season brought frustration to Elmer as a sophomore. He looked better as a physical player in the run game, but struggled at times with balance. That was reflected in his inconsistency as a pass-blocker.

So how does Elmer take his game to the next level and find an equilibrium between aggression and body control?

“That’s the million-dollar question. That’s what I’ve been working on for the last two-and-a-half years,” Elmer said. “It’s really just doing it over and over and knowing your situation when you have to come off the ball, when you need to be a little bit more under control. That’s part of my consistency I’ve been building on.”

The lessons from offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have focused on correcting some of the mistakes that plagued Elmer last season. It often comes back to the first move at the snap of the ball.

“Whether it’s firing out too fast, being out of control or being out of balance, if I would have just taken the right set or a better first step, it would have been a much easier block for me to make,” Elmer said.

Head coach Brian Kelly pointed to Elmer as an improved player this spring. His development has pushed him away from the competition for the starting left guard spot between redshirt freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson. Kelly indicated the runner-up at left guard won’t necessarily be pushing for Elmer’s spot in the fall.

“We like what Elmer has done. We thought he was sloppy at times and he's really cleaned up a lot of those unforced errors in technique,” Kelly said. “I think he's really become so much more technically sound. He's a big, strong kid, and once he's eliminated a lot of those it's allowed him to work so much more efficiently with (right tackle) Mike (McGlinchey).”

The left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line has been considered the stronger side for the past several years. It was a constant with former Irish linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt and continued last year with Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin.

Elmer and McGlinchey have a chance to balance the strength of the offensive line. The two started together for the first time in the Music City Bowl win over LSU in December. Now the two are building a chemistry together needed to create a successful pairing.

The reps together create an understanding of where the other lineman will be on any given play. When making quick moves in small spaces, knowing beats thinking.

“We’re working together pretty well,” Elmer said. “We have a lot of stuff to work on still, but having the bowl season to work with Mike and now being able to go through spring with him, you just get a better feel of where he’s going to be on block. He knows where I’m going to be on each block. That really helps us put it together.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame's Steve Elmer (79) and John Montelus (60) during Notre Dame football practice on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)