What Does Notre Dame Have On The OL? Departing Starters Have Thoughts
Listen carefully to Brian Kelly’s comments on the offensive line after Notre Dame’s first spring practice, and it is reasonable to conclude the Irish are only searching for two starters despite having four openings up front.
“Zeke [Correll] is slotted in at that center position,” Kelly said. “Josh Lugg is going to play at tackle, but most likely will slide into the guard position when the season starts. You’re going to see a big battle for one of the tackle positions and one of the guard positions.”
The thing is, Notre Dame lost both starting tackles from last season in Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey. If Lugg and his eight career starts are filling a guard spot instead of tackle, the presumption is senior Jarrett Patterson will kick out from center to take over one of those tackle jobs when he returns from a foot injury later this offseason.
Sliding to the edge is a long-anticipated move for Patterson, who started 21 games the last two seasons at center but was recruited as a tackle. Correll has worked only at center since his January 2019 arrival and started twice in Patterson’s place after the injury.
The candidates for the two open spots are all light on experience but mostly former blue-chip recruits. The first-team group in Saturday’s practice was sophomore Tosh Baker at left tackle, fifth-year senior Dillan Gibbons at left guard, Correll, right guard John Dirksen and Lugg. The second team was freshman Blake Fisher (LT), freshman Rocco Spindler (LG), junior Andrew Kristofic (C), junior Quinn Carroll (RG) and sophomore Michael Carmody (RT).
“You’re going to see a little bit of everybody,” Kelly said.
What, then, should be expected from them? Who made a prior impression? What’s the outlook for the group? The May 1 Blue-Gold Game, which as of now is the only practice of the 15 open to media, feels like the earliest time frame for beginning to answer those questions.
The players who are bequeathing the four jobs, though, have some thoughts.
“They have some guys who are going to need to step up and play big-time minutes they’re not used to playing,” Hainsey said. “I’m really excited to watch all those guys get their opportunity. There are a lot of great players in that room. It’ll be fun to watch them battle it out for who’s going to play.”
Eichenberg volunteered three scouting reports.
• On Baker: “He has a great mindset. He works hard. For him, it’s just about getting stronger in the offseason. He put in a lot of work this winter, so I’m excited to see how he looks. I was at one (spring) practice, I was sitting up on the top deck and couldn’t see very well, but I think he has done well so far…He moves well, is good with his hands, he understands the playbook.”
• On Lugg: “We had four guys coming out this year, and he has been behind them and me at times. It has allowed him to develop even more. This is his opportunity now. He will start on the offensive line this year, there’s no doubt about that. I think he’s going to do very well. He’s a guy who understands his technique and fundamentals, a guy who stuck it out, who’d do anything or sacrifice anything for the offensive line.”
• On Patterson’s move: “Football comes easy for him. First camp as a freshman, he was a left tackle behind me. I think it’ll be like nothing ever happened. I don’t expect there to be a drop-off at all. It’ll be like I was still there or Mike [McGlinchey] was still there. I think Jarrett will be one of the next greats. He’s a great center and him moving out to tackle will make people realize he’s a better player than most think.”
Tommy Kraemer, a three-year starter at right guard, spent several seasons in meeting rooms, film sessions and practices with Gibbons and Dirksen behind him. Those two are the only three-star recruits among the 10 players who comprised the two offensive line units Saturday.
“Those guys are two awesome football players,” Kraemer said. “They’re tough, gritty, physical. They can definitely do it. The Notre Dame offensive line will be getting two mature players in John and Dillan, guys who care about the program and improving their craft.”
No matter the combination, one of college football’s most experienced lines in 2020 will be among its less proven units at the start of 2021. Lugg, Correll, Gibbons and Patterson are the only returning linemen in spring practice who have played in a high-leverage situation. The first three have a combined 11 starts.
Internal expectations, though, are unchanged. Notre Dame has fielded reliable offensive lines through most of Kelly’s tenure. Turnover is no reason to give the group a one-year pass.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve always lost really good players,” Kelly said. “It’s my job and our coaches’ job to replace them and maintain the standard of excellence we’ve had around here. Being in the College Football Playoff two of the last three years doesn’t give you a pass in saying we lost all these players.
“It just means that’s the expectation. We have to get these guys ready.”
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