Notre Dame's Guard Duty Set To Tackle More In 2019
There is an unwritten rule in football that defensive linemen can always become offensive linemen if needed, but that it’s highly unlikely that offensive line can transition to defense effectively.
The corollary is that offensive tackles can shift to guard or center, but the opposite is not going to occur as much. Witness the 2019 Notre Dame starting offensive line that was assembled this spring.
Both tackles, senior Liam Eichenberg on the left and Robert Hainsey on the right, return as starters, but the interior also has been filled with former tackles. Sophomore center Jarrett Patterson was Eichenberg’s backup last season and was perceived as one of the five best offensive linemen on the team this spring, per the coaching staff. This spring has helped validate that evaluation.
Likewise, right guard Tommy Kraemer was the co-starter at right tackle with Hainsey in 2017 (Hainsey had 455 snaps that season and Kraemer 443), while Aaron Banks entered his sophomore campaign in 2018 as Hainsey’s top backup at right tackle after Kraemer shifted to guard.
In the cases of Kraemer and Banks, their 2018 paths took a detour to where they are now. For Kraemer it required losing his job, whereas for Banks it was about forcing his way into the lineup, much like Patterson has this spring.
After starting the first three games, Kraemer was sidelined in the outing at Wake Forest because of an ankle injury, and Trevor Ruhland’s performance in his place drew notice, although Kraemer returned to the starting lineup a week later. Following a hard fought 19-14 win versus Pitt and then the bye week, Ruhland was then inserted ahead of Kraemer in the ensuing two games versus Navy and Northwestern because of the mobility he provided
“He had to move better,” explained Fighting Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long on why he replaced Kraemer. “I like to pull our [guards] and we were not very good last year, and we’re not going to lose that part of our offense.”
In retrospect, it was a dose of humble pie that Kraemer is glad he sampled.
“We have a lot of outside perimeter pulls, and there were times where the running back was running into me,” Kraemer said. “So I really focused on being explosive on the pulls and getting on the edge.”
Kraemer regained his starting role by the home finale versus Florida State and kept his position the remainder of the year. This spring the 6-6, 319-pound Cincinnati native actually added a hint of weight, but conspicuously redefined and streamlined his body with better nutrition, hydration and sleep patterns that helped replace excess fat with muscle and more explosive capabilities. It has shown with upgraded footwork that has enhanced his aggressiveness.
“I think that was the best thing for me,” said Kraemer of his temporary demotion. “Coach Long talked to me about it, used it to fire me up, and it did … I’m happy that it happened. Last year there were definitely ups and downs and I want to make sure that never happens again. So I really focused on myself, my game, my body, and just ran with that.
“I think I’ve had a really strong spring thus far. Obviously you have to improve every day and I have a lot of stuff to improve on, but I didn’t want to have a season like last year where I was an up and down player.”
“You see a much more confident guy out there, he’s stronger,” Long confirmed earlier this spring regarding Kraemer. “Way better than the middle of year when Trevor was in there.”
As for Banks, movement and tentativeness were never issues with his robust 6-6, 325-pound frame. By the third game last season, versus Vanderbilt, the staff was attempting to find a role for him and, like quarterback Ian Book, he began to be inserted in short-yardage situations.
“Honestly, I didn’t know if that was the plan,” Banks said of his first action after redshirting as a freshman in 2017. “I just thought they wanted me in to have a big body in there, but it definitely boosted my confidence and allowed me to play at a higher level day in and day out.”
When captain Alex Bars was then sidelined for the rest of the season because of a torn ACL in game five versus Stanford and replaced by Ruhland for a couple of weeks, Banks’ combination of size and mobility made him the starting left guard the remaining six games following the bye week.
In the two games prior to Banks’ insertion (Virginia Tech and Pitt), Notre Dame averaged 123.5 yards rushing and 3.5 yards per carry — and that was even with a 97-yard touchdown gallop by Dexter Williams at Virginia Tech. Over the next five contests to close out the regular season once Banks became a starter, those figures improved to 206.4 yards rushing per contest and 5.2 yards per run. The line collectively also allowed only one sack per game in that span.
Stage fright, Banks insists, is not part of his persona, and it showed from the outset in his starting debut, versus Navy back in his native California.
“I don’t think about it,” Banks said. “I think about playing. I don’t care about who’s there, who’s watching and how many people are there.”
“Banks doesn’t have a problem with confidence,” Long chuckled. “He’s going. [If] he makes mistakes, he’s going to get after everybody.”
“Initially it was really fast, kind of like bullets were flying," Banks said of his debut. "As the reps went on, the game starts to slow down more, so I was able to get comfortable with myself, get comfortable with the guys next to me.”
Over the past eight years, the left side of the Notre Dame offensive line has been as formidable as they come in college football with the likes of Zack Martin/Chris Watt from 2011-13, Ronnie Stanley/Quenton Nelson (2015) and Mike McGlinchey/Nelson (2016-17). The Eichenberg/Banks tandem this season and perhaps in 2020 as well has an opportunity to continue that tradition. In fact, everyone along the 2019 starting offensive line has at least one more year of eligibility in 2020.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Banks said. “We have a lot of talented players, a lot of chemistry along the front five.”
Just as important to Banks has been witnessing the work ethic and team play of predecessors such as Nelson and Bars at left guard. Bars served as a personal coach for Banks after the injury last season, and he and 2016-18 starting center Sam Mustipher have been to some of the practices this spring as overseers.
“[Quenton was a] tremendous role model for us to look up to, and we still try to watch his film and follow in his footsteps,” Banks said “…If anybody needed anything he was there to help us. Bars has given me tips here and there. Guys are here to help. They want everybody to get better. We have great role models ahead of us.”
It's their way of "guarding" the tradition that has been built up front.