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Breaking Down Notre Dame: the Offensive Line

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In Part IV of our series breaking down each unit of the Fighting Irish ahead of the BCS national championship game, we take a look today at the Notre Dame offensive line, assessing its component parts and comparing it to Alabama's own unit.

The Notre Dame offensive line has emerged as a force this season.
The Notre Dame offensive line has emerged as a force this season.

Now that we've taken a look at the Notre Dame defense, it's time to move on to the offensive side of the ball. Our previous pieces have examined the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary, and we'll begin our look at the Notre Dame offense with the offensive line.

The Irish offensive line unit is generally considered to be the strength of the Notre Dame offense, and that's probably the case. Unlike on the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame has produced a good deal of NFL talent at the offensive line positions in recent years, and this year's unit carries on that tradition. The Irish will be able to trot out a line on Monday night that will challenge Alabama's front seven in a big way.

The Notre Dame Offensive Linemen

Editor's Note: In order to make objective comparisons of different players and units for this series, we're going to be leaning heavily on NFL draft projections compiled by the folks at CBS Sports. Of course NFL talent, or at least projected NFL talent, doesn't necessarily equate to effectiveness at the college level, but we find that it is highly correlated, and can often be the best objective measure readily available for the individual ability of college players. Further, the CBS projections are by no means the only ones out there, nor are they necessarily the best, but they are quite comprehensive and include projections not just for this year's draft entries, but also for underclassmen as well, which helps tremendously for this endeavor.

Notre Dame's leader on the offensive line is fifth-year senior center Braxston Cave (#52). Cave is projected to be a 3rd or 4th round pick in this year's NFL Draft, and is ranked as the 3rd-best center in this year's draft class. He has been a full-time starter for three years now, and as his draft projection indicates, he is NFL-ready and is one of the nation's best centers. His matchup with Alabama's nose tackle Jesse Williams, himself a projected 1st-round draft pick, will certainly be a big key to the game.

Cave is joined on the interior of the Irish line by two other veteran players. Lining up on Cave's left is fourth-year junior Chris Watt (#66), who is in his second season as a full-time starter. Watt is ranked as the 14th-best guard in the junior class, indicating he has a good chance to be drafted in the late rounds of next year's NFL Draft.

Playing on Cave's right is another fifth-year senior, Mike Golic Jr. (#57). Although he is a fifth-year player, this is Golic's first season as a full-time starter, though he did start a few games at center last season when Cave when down with an injury. He is not currently rated as an NFL prospect.

At tackle, Notre Dame's top player is fourth-year junior Zack Martin (#70), who has been a stalwart at left tackle for three seasons now. Martin recently announced that he would return for his fifth year, foregoing this year's NFL Draft, for which he was projected to be a middle round pick had he left early. He's ranked as the 8th-best tackle in the junior class, meaning he could potentially be an early-round pick next year. In any case, Martin is one of the better offensive tackles in the country and he is a big reason why Notre Dame's line has played at such a high level this season.

Lining up at right tackle opposite of Martin is third-year sophomore Christian Lombard (#74). This is Lombard's first season as a starter, but he's been fairly impressive as a young player. He is ranked as the 14th-best tackle in the sophomore class, meaning he's projected to be an NFL player at some point, though probably not an elite draft pick. He is the only player in the Irish starting five who has been on the team less than four years.

Together, this offensive line is one of the more talented units in the nation. Cave and Martin are both high-end talents, and Watt and Lombard are potential future NFL players as well. In terms of pure talent, this Notre Dame offensive line is probably better than anyone Alabama has faced this year save for Texas A&M, who has two elite 1st-round tackles, and perhaps Tennessee, which has a handful of NFL-caliber players on its line.

Again, speaking strictly in terms of projected NFL talent and experience, it would seem to be a pretty even matchup between Alabama's defensive line and the offensive line of Notre Dame. As we explained in our piece comparing the defensive lines, Alabama has an elite talent in Jesse Williams, and several other potential NFL players with lots of experience. The matchup between those two units then should be fought on fairly level terms with regard to talent, although the advantage would likely swing to the Notre Dame offensive line if Williams is significantly hampered by his knee injury, as many Bama fans fear.

Comparing Notre Dame's offensive linemen to Alabama's

While Notre Dame has a very good offensive line, Alabama's is loaded with more top-end NFL talent than any team in the country this season. In fact, this is perhaps one of the most stacked offensive lines that any team has had in several years. While the two offensive lines look every similar in terms of experience and leadership, Alabama has the edge in talent at every position.

Like Notre Dame, Alabama's unit is led by a talented fifth-year senior center in Barrett Jones (#75). Jones has gotten plenty of accolades during his illustrious career, including multiple All-American selections and the 2011 Outland Trophy. Much of the media attention he receives revolves around the fact that he has started at three different positions for full seasons during his career, during which he's been a full-time starter at one position or another for four consecutive years. Jones isn't just a good media story, though. He's ranked as the #1 best center in the country, and is projected to be drafted in the 1st or 2nd round of this year's NFL Draft. Notre Dame has the nation's 3rd-ranked center in Cave, but it just so happens that Alabama has the 1st-ranked.

While Barrett Jones has gotten the bulk of the accolades and media attention among the Alabama offensive linemen, the player who lines up to his left may be even better, and will also share the distinction with Jones of pulling off the rarest of feats should Alabama win on Monday: starting for three different national championship teams. (Editor's note--Related question we didn't have time to research: how many other players, if any, have done this? Among poll-era teams, they would have had to have started for Nebraska from 1994-1997, or Notre Dame from 1946-1949...) Senior Chance Warmack (#65) is Alabama's starter at right guard for the fourth consecutive season, and, like Jones, he is considered to be the #1 best player at his position in the entire country. However, Warmack is expected to be drafted even higher than Jones, potentially as high as the top ten or fifteen picks in this year's draft, an extremely high grade for an interior offensive lineman, which goes to show just how dominate Warmack has been this year and throughout his career.

Starting to the right of Jones at guard is fourth-year junior Anthony Steen (#61), who was a part-time starter on Alabama's national championship team last season and has taken over full-time duties this season. Steen is the only starter on Alabama's line who is not considered to be a very high-end NFL talent. He is ranked as the 29th-best guard in the junior class, meaning he's a borderline NFL prospect but may have some work to do to prove he's worthy of a pick in next year's draft.

To fortify Alabama's unit, there are also two elite NFL prospects at the tackle positions. The massive 335-pound D.J. Fluker (#76), a fourth-year junior, anchors Alabama's offensive line on the right side. Although he is a bit raw in his footwork, especially in pass protection, Fluker is arguably the most physically imposing tackle in all of college football and is a highly talented and coveted prospect. He is ranked as the 8th-best tackle in this year's draft class despite being just a junior, and is projected to be drafted in the 2nd round of this year's NFL Draft should he elect to forego his senior season (he has not made an official decision yet).

Even with the high regard in which Fluker is held, he may not be Alabama's best tackle. Young sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio (#71), who is playing his first full season of college football after missing much of his freshman year due to injury, starts for the Tide at left tackle. Kouandjio's talent has always been obvious, as he was ranked the #1 best offensive lineman recruit in the nation in 2011 and is now ranked as the #1 best sophomore tackle in the nation, indicating he's on track to be a 1st-round draft choice as early as next year, when he will first become eligible. Although he is in just his first year starting and is still relatively young, Kouandjio has played at a high level this season, though he hasn't received the accolades he might otherwise have were he not on the same unit as the likes of Jones, Warmack, and Fluker.

Alabama's ability to trot out four very high-end, elite talents on its offensive line gives it the clear edge in a comparison with Notre Dame's unit, and that of every other team in the country. As noted earlier, Alabama's defensive line will have its hands full with Notre Dame's solid offensive line. But even though Notre Dame's defensive line might have the slightest of edges relative to Alabama's defensive line, they'll have a more difficult challenge on Monday night by virtue of having to go against Alabama's top-notch offensive line.

In short, neither team should have a clear edge in the trenches when Notre Dame has the ball (caveat: unless Alabama's Williams is significantly limited), but Alabama should have a slight edge in those same trenches when the Tide has the ball. However, it should be noted that a similar caveat is needed for that last statement. Barrett Jones, like Jesse Williams, suffered a serious injury in the SEC Championship game against Georgia, and may not be able to go at 100% on Monday. Without Jones, Alabama's edge against the Notre Dame defensive line will be slim at best, if it's existent at all. While Alabama's backup center, redshirt freshman Ryan Kelly (#70), is highly regarded, his potential matchup with Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix in what would be the first real playing time of his career is not one that Alabama fans should relish.