SOUTH BEND – Christmas was four days away and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had to check his list more than twice.
A week before the No. 25 Irish (8-4) were to play Rutgers (6-6) on Saturday in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, Kelly was searching his notes to provide an updated depth chart for the offensive line.
I think the first and second units are as one, pretty much, Kelly said as he flipped through papers at the podium.
The deadpan response to which players would back up the five starters against the Scarlet Knights more than summed up what the Irishs offensive line unit looks like heading into the bowl game.
Notre Dame opened the season with left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt and right tackle Christian Lombard returning as starters and had plugged Nick Martin, Zacks younger brother, at center and Ronnie Stanley at right tackle.
It was an experienced group with Zack Martin and Watt returning as fifth-year seniors who had started every game the previous two seasons, and Lombard, a senior, starting every game in 2012. Nick Martin had two years of seasoning entering his junior year and played in every game as a sophomore, and Stanley, a sophomore, had spent his freshman year learning.
But that foundation disappeared throughout the season as Lombard was lost after week seven because of back surgery then Nick Martin, who played with a broken hand for two games, was lost entering the final week of the season to a hyperextended left knee then Watt suffered an MCL injury in the season finale against Stanford, keeping him from playing against Rutgers.
The injuries leave Notre Dame with a likely starting offensive line of Zack Martin at left tackle, Conor Hanratty at left guard, Matt Hegarty at center, Steve Elmer at right guard and Stanley at right tackle. Hegarty made his first start at center against Stanford; Elmer played in nine games this year making three starts at right guard; and Hanratty played in the final five games of the regular season, starting once at left guard and twice at right guard.
Were a little thin there right now, Kelly said. Weve got one guy we could probably plug in there right now. Thats about it right now. Weve got one guy.
That one guy is sophomore Mark Harrell, who didnt play as a freshman or in a game this season.
Harrell would go in at guard with Hanratty moving over to center and Hegarty plugging into whatever position needed to be filled if he wasnt the injured player.
If there was a second injury, Kelly said he would turn to senior walk-on Kevin Carr to play as he wants to preserve a year of eligibility for freshmen linemen Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey, Colin McGovern and John Montelus.
It didnt take long to notice that you are getting a lot of extra reps, Hegarty said. Everyone has really stepped up to the plate.
And Notre Dame hasnt appeared to lose much in its protection as new players have come into the line.
The Irish enter the Pinstripe Bowl second in the nation in sacks allowed with eight.
It is amazing, Hegarty said of the Irish being able to reshape their line. I think it is the preparation that we put in. We are one of the tightest knit units on the team. We do everything together.
We show up early and get some extra work in. We are always trying to give ourselves as many chances that we can to be ready for everything.