Freshman Starter(s)? Patterson’s Position? Notre Dame’s OL Reboot Forges On
As Notre Dame’s offensive line overhaul continues its twists and turns, it appears 21-game starter Jarrett Patterson is the man without a clear position. For now.
Patterson, the Irish’s center the last two seasons, will start somewhere. That’s locked in. Where he lands, though, is less clear now than perhaps it was when spring ball began in late March. Ten practices have brought some new potential contributors to light.
So right now, while Patterson recovers from foot surgery, his exact spot is undetermined as head coach Brian Kelly and the offensive staff continue their game of finding the right mix of four others. The game feels like a mix of offensive line musical chairs and sudoku.
“What we’re doing is saying, ‘Jarrett is the guard right now, what’s our best five? Jarrett is the tackle, what’s our best five?’” Kelly said. “That’s a game we’re playing right now in spring to see what’s the best five when Patterson comes back. Is it guard, is it tackle? Once he gets back, we’ll start to figure out where his comfort level is and where he makes the best five.”
His least likely landing spot is center, where Kelly on Saturday all but deemed Zeke Correll the starter there a week after urging the masses not to view him as such.
“We think Zeke is one of our five, so he’s the center,” Kelly said.
Correll, a junior-to-be, has worked exclusively at center since his January 2019 arrival. He started two of the four 2020 games Patterson missed after suffering a foot injury in November. In a spring where Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn have deliberately moved players around, he has remained at one spot.
Patterson’s presumed best-fit move this winter was to head out to tackle, where he worked as a freshman before sliding inside. He was recruited as a tackle and played the position in high school. It made logical sense to fill one of the offensive line’s two most important spots with the unit’s most experienced player who has repped there before.
Spring practice, though, has complicated in a good way the matter of his new home. Five-star freshman Blake Fisher has emerged as a legitimate candidate to start at left tackle and has split first-team reps there with sophomore Tosh Baker. That race won’t be settled anytime soon, but for its contestants to impress Kelly enough to consider an alternate position for Patterson is a positive and perhaps unexpected development.
Fisher and Baker, Kelly said, are tackles only. Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Josh Lugg’s vagabond tendencies are no more.
Lugg has split his eight career starts between right tackle (five), right guard (one) and center (two). It’s hard to envision him not starting somewhere Week 1. Kelly initially thought that would be at guard, despite all of his visible spring reps coming at right tackle. Three weeks later, Kelly thinks he may stay outside.
“I think he feels most comfortable at the tackle position,” Kelly said. “That’s where he has settled in our own mind as well. This was always going to be about how the other pieces were going to fall in line to see what the ultimate position was going to be for Josh.”
The tackle spots are clear. So is center. Left guard? A surprise candidate has made an impression. Rocco Spindler has taken all the first-team snaps there in the recent practice videos released by Notre Dame.
It’s preposterous to think he’s locked in there after three weeks of college football, but Kelly spoke with more certainty than expected when discussing a freshman offensive line starter. Is Spindler really the favorite for that spot in April? On a team where freshmen linemen have started five games since 2020, no less?
“We’ve been playing a lot with Fisher and Spindler on one side,” Kelly said. “Because of that, it solidified the guard and tackle position.”
The teammate reviews sure seem to say those two are freshman in designation only.
“Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler, those guys are damn good,” nose tackle Kurt Hinish said.
Added defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: “Rocco and Blake, they’re going to be a force. I can see both of them being drafted really high.”
And furthermore, Lugg says he’s free of the back issues that caused him problems last year. He dropped weight from 321 pounds in November to 291 in February and is back to 300 now. He’s targeting 305 to 310 for the season opener.
“I feel like I’m moving a lot better especially after dropping some weight,” Lugg said.
At this stage, it seems Notre Dame’s best five — or at least most trusted five — are one of Fisher or Baker, Spindler, Correll, Patterson and Lugg. Patterson, then, seems to have one landing spot: guard.
“It makes sense if you’re going to plug in Patterson at guard, Lugg goes to tackle,” Kelly said. “That’s where we are right now after 10.”
But don’t write it in Sharpie as the lineup Sept. 5 at Florida State just yet. This is a complete makeover where 15 players with 32 combined starts must replace four players with more than 100 starts. The separation after just a few weeks of spring practice can only be so large when so many contenders are starting with such limited experience.
“This spring isn’t about starting,” Lugg said. “It’s about opportunities and getting as many reps as possible.”
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