Analysis: Steve Elmer has a dream. It just looks different.

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The beauty in Steve Elmer’s 986-word, first-person explanation for walking away from football is that there are no lines to read between.

As of Tuesday, officially, Elmer is a former Notre Dame offensive lineman and not a senior-to-be right offensive guard with three more starts on his career résumé (30) than all of the Irish O-linemates he leaves behind have combined (27).

As important as it was to Elmer to make it clear why the dream he is now chasing looks different than those we’re used to seeing from college football players, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Midland, Mich., product also brought distinct clarity when he came to what his forgoing his senior season WASN’T about.

“I have no problems with the coaching staff, no academic issues, and no violations of team rules that normally come along with a statement like this,” Elmer wrote. “My reasons for cutting my playing career short have nothing to do with any negative experiences at Notre Dame.

“In fact, I would consider my commitment to this exceptional university the best decision I have ever made. Playing football here was a huge challenge, but I wouldn't trade the experience of doing battle out there on that field with my brothers for anything.”

His next step looks like this: Elmer, an economics major with a 3.52 GPA, will graduate in May, a year ahead of schedule. He’ll take a job in the Washington, D.C., area this summer and dive into the deep end of life after football.

Elmer spent this past summer in D.C., interning for Michigan Congressman John Moolenaar and Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Kelly.

What Notre Dame’s next step looks like is a little more convoluted.

Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand believes in putting your best five linemen on the field. And if that means converting a tackle into a center or a guard into a tackle, so be it. So there isn’t necessarily a clear linear move up to plug into Elmer’s vacated right guard spot.

Incumbent right tackle Mike McGlinchey, a senior-to-be with two seasons of eligibility, is a strong candidate to move to soon-to-be, first-round draft choice Ronnie Stanley’s vacated left tackle spot. Junior-to-be Quenton Nelson figures to stay put at left guard.

Junior-to-be Sam Mustipher and redshirted freshman Tristen Hoge will battle it out this spring to be the starting center, with former starter Nick Martin headed for an NFL career.

Junior-to-be Alex Bars, coming back from a fractured ankle, seems like a lock to end up in the starting five, but where? It could come down to whether senior-to-be Hunter Bivin is viewed as a better tackle than classmate Colin McGovern is a guard.

Bars then would slide into the open spot. Then again, his highest ceiling may be at tackle and that might be too difficult to ignore.

There’s also a chance the player who doesn’t win the starting center spot, between Hoge and Mustipher, could push his way into the right guard discussion when spring practice opens on March 16.

A subtle but sensible move would be bringing back Mark Harrell for a fifth year. Though he’s made only seven cameos in four years on campus, he does offer some needed depth and position flexibility, with the ability to play center, guard and tackle.

In the bigger picture Elmer’s departure leaves Notre Dame with just four returning starters on offense and nine overall. In 2015, Kansas (8) was the only Power 5 school that returned fewer starters than what the Irish will in 2016.

The good news is, both Clemson (9 returning starters) and Alabama (10) reached the national championship game this past season with similar numbers.

ND’s returning starter total is a bit deceiving in that the Irish also get back 2014 starters, nose guard Jarron Jones and running back Tarean Folston, and projected 2015 starter at nickel Shaun Crawford. The Irish also return more than a handful of others with some career starting experience, including wide receiver Corey Robinson.

Interestingly, Robinson — one of only 10 ND players moving into their final season of eligibility in 2016 — also pondered forgoing his senior football season for something other than an early jump into the NFL Draft pool, but ultimately made a U-turn.

There were no such second thoughts on Elmer’s part, though the initial decision he deemed was a difficult one.

“No matter how excited I am about what the future has in store for me, the question that inevitably comes up is: Why don't you just wait until next year?” Elmer wrote.

“My answer is pretty simple. The excitement I feel about the professional opportunity in front of me has helped me to realize that I'm just ready to be done with football. I've been playing this game for many years, and quite honestly my heart is no longer in it.

“I realize that this may be considered sacrilege to some, but it's truth. What I do love, and where my heart will always be, is the University of Notre Dame.”

For those who know Elmer, taking a barely worn path is hardly out of character.

The moment he absolutely knew he wanted to be a Notre Dame football player came while he was standing on the Michigan sideline during a Michigan recruiting visit at Michigan Stadium 4½ years ago as Michigan rallied past the Irish, 35-31.

He verbally committed to ND seven days later, 17 months before he’d be able to sign a national letter-of-intent. When that day finally rolled around, in February of 2013, Rivals.com deemed him a four-star prospect and the No. 60 player regardless of position.

Heading into the spring of 2014, he was in the mix to become Zack Martin’s successor at left tackle as a sophomore. But incumbent starter at right tackle Ronnie Stanley so quickly and convincingly separated himself, he moved to left tackle, and Elmer bounced between right tackle and guard for a while before settling into the guard position.

As a guard, Elmer was still looked upon as a draftable pro prospect in 2017. Analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com, said pro scouts liked Elmer’s size and skill set but that inconsistency would have likely tethered him to a Day 3 destiny (rounds 5-7).

Whether Elmer could have altered that trajectory with a strong senior season, he’ll never know. And that’s a what-if he is convinced he can live with.

“All I ask from you is that you trust me when I say I know that I have made the right decision,” he wrote.

A smattering of teammates, including Stanley, took to Twitter Tuesday to show their support for Elmer’s life choice.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly took it a step further.

“Notre Dame is a special place that develops unique and talented people," he said in a statement. "Steve Elmer is such a person. He chose Notre Dame to earn a degree from the top university in the world and play football at the highest level. He’s accomplished both and so much more.

“This is an incredible professional opportunity for Steve. We, as a coaching staff, talk about how attending Notre Dame isn’t a four-year decision; rather it’s a 40-year investment into your life.

“This university provides so many different avenues toward success, whether that’s on the football field or in the boardroom, and Steve’s another outstanding example.”

STEVE ELMER STATEMENT

Editor's note: Notre Dame starting offensive guard Steve Elmer, a two-year starter with one year of eligibility remaining, announced Tuesday he is leaving the game. Following is his statement.

Let's get the hard part out of the way first: I am writing to inform you that I have decided to forgo my final season of athletic eligibility at the University of Notre Dame, and I have no interest in pursuing a spot on an NFL roster.

Now I know that for many of you reading this letter, this situation may sound a little crazy. After all, it's not every day that you hear about a Notre Dame starter about to enter his final season stepping away willingly from this most-revered game. There must be something wrong. Actually, everything is great.

I have no problems with the coaching staff, no academic issues, and no violations of team rules that normally come along with a statement like this. My reasons for cutting my playing career short have nothing to do with any negative experiences at Notre Dame; in fact, I would consider my commitment to this exceptional university the best decision I have ever made. Playing football here was a huge challenge, but I wouldn't trade the experience of doing battle out there on that field with my brothers for anything.

While playing football for Notre Dame has been nothing short of an honor, I have been presented with an incredible opportunity to pursue a career doing something in which I have great interest, and at a great company to boot. The experience of balancing Notre Dame's academic rigors with my football commitments has given me a great foundation for my next endeavor. I will graduate from Notre Dame this May and start my professional journey this summer in the Washington, D.C. area.

No matter how excited I am about what the future has in store for me, the question that inevitably comes up is: why don't you just wait until next year? My answer is pretty simple; the excitement I feel about the professional opportunity in front of me has helped me to realize that I'm just ready to be done with football. I've been playing this game for many years, and quite honestly my heart is no longer in it. I realize that this may be considered sacrilege to some, but it's truth. What I do love, and where my heart will always be, is the University of Notre Dame.

Way back even before high school, when my parents and I talked about football it was always in the context of a vehicle that could take me to the places I wanted to go in life. As I got a little older, it became clear to me that Notre Dame was where I wanted to be, so I devoted myself to football and my studies in the hopes of one day attending this great University. As the events unfolded, I ended up with a chance to do something that millions of people can only dream of — to run out of that tunnel wearing a gold helmet. While I wasn't always thrilled about football growing up, only a crazy person could have resisted excitement at the prospect of playing for Notre Dame.

Because of my love and admiration for this university, I poured everything I had into representing Notre Dame on and off the field, as best I could, for the past three seasons. I even enrolled early to get a head start in case I was needed that first fall. As it were, I played in ten games as a true freshman, and learned quickly how great the demands of elite college athletics could be. Over the next two years, I had some of the best times of my life with a truly special group of guys. I took my work seriously and I made many lifelong friends in the process. Everyone I have spent time with at Notre Dame has been wonderful: from the men I have been honored to call my teammates, to my dorm mates at Marion Burk Knott Hall, to the coaches, training and equipment staff, and all the people who work behind the scenes in administrative and recruiting roles. I sincerely thank you all for being the best part of my days here.

When I was being recruited, one of the things I heard over and over was that it's the people at Notre Dame that makes it so special. I believed them at the time, but I would never know how true that statement was until I experienced it first-hand. If I had one thing to say about this university, I would say that it's unique. From my own time here, I can say with great confidence that no other CFP school develops young men academically, athletically, and spiritually the way Notre Dame does. Any player who chooses to come here can rest easy knowing that if they put in the work, they will leave very well prepared for the rest of their lives.

If this sounds like it was a difficult decision for me, you would be right. My time at Notre Dame is something I will always cherish, leaving me with the best of friends and countless memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I owe so much to this university, not only for giving me the chance to play on college football's biggest stage and preparing me for life beyond the game, but for helping to make me the man I am today. All I ask from you is that you trust me when I say I know that I have made the right decision.

I'd like to thank coach Kelly, his current and former staff, and my teammates for making this truly the experience of a lifetime. I'd also like to thank my family for its incredible and continued support, as well as the Irish fan base for making my time here truly special. It takes a village, and I sure am thankful for mine.

Sincerely,

Steve Elmer `16

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BONUS: Eric Hansen ranks Notre Dame's top five returning offensive linemen. Listen below.

Steve Elmer (79) and Ronnie Stanley (78) walk off with the Music City Bowl trophy following a 31-28 Notre Dame vic­tory over LSU Dec. 30 at Nashville, Tenn. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)