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Spring Outlook: Unprecedented depth along Notre Dame’s offensive line

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Step one: Rereads the “Spring Outlook” concerning Notre Dame’s offensive line from a year ago.
Step two: Considers using the exact same headline, A search for a fifth starter

Sure, a year ago the Irish were looking to replace two first-round picks while this spring they will need to fill holes left by two mid- to low-round selections, if either guard Alex Bars or center Sam Mustipher is drafted at all. The 2017 offensive line did not vary at all; the 2018 unit went through a number of permutations, including some midseason shuffling.

Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Notre Dame knows who four starters will likely be. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn needs to identify the fifth this spring.

Spring roster:
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, one-year starter, all 13 games in 2018.
— Junior left guard Aaron Banks, one-year starter, six games in 2018.
— Senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, two-year starter, including 10 games in 2018.
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey, two-year starter, including all 13 games in 2018.
— Fifth-year Trevor Ruhland, the most-likely candidate to start at center.

Spring depth:
— Sophomore tackles Jarrett Patterson and Cole Mabry.
— Junior guards Dillan Gibbons, Josh Lugg and Darnell Ewell.
— Sophomore guard John Dirksen.
— Sophomore center Luke Jones.
— Early-enrolled freshmen Quinn Carroll, Andrew Kristofic, John Olmstead and Zeke Correll.

Yes, that is 16 scholarship offensive linemen on the spring roster. It can be considered only a good thing.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
It seems almost certain Ruhland secures the starting center gig, partly due to his abilities and partly due to a hole in the roster created by Parker Boudreaux’s transfer. Now at Central Florida, Boudreaux would have been a senior at Notre Dame heading into this season and the presumed starter for the next two seasons. Instead, the Irish depth chart is expected to list Ruhland, a converted guard, ahead of Jones and Correll.

Correll has the pedigree to perhaps surprise and take over the position, and early enrollment will aid that cause, but given Ruhland’s four years of advantage in a collegiate strength and conditioning program, that would be a shock in every regard. For what it’s worth, if that occurred, Ruhland might slip into a rotation with Kraemer at right guard, as was seen at points in 2018 when Banks showed himself quite comfortable when he got playing time following the October idle week.

If those are the starters, what about the second-unit?
Presume Patterson remains the left-tackle-in-training, as he picked up a few snaps there last season thanks to the NCAA’s leniency about appearing in four games or fewer. That slots Mabry at right tackle, if for no other reason than to try and preserve a year of eligibility for Carroll. The same logic makes Lugg the frontrunner for any guard substitutions needed, with Gibbons then following him.

And then there is the reader question, the name glossed over in those previous two sections a name also left out in the entirety of Thursday’s discussion of the defensive line.
“Any insight on Darnell Ewell moving back to defensive tackle?” — Eamonn R.

It is a fair question. There is depth on the Irish offensive line, while there very much is not along the defensive interior, but the timing of Ewell’s move from defensive tackle to offensive guard is enough of an indication he is unlikely to make the move back. Ewell flipped in the middle of last season, never pushing for playing time at either position.

That was not a time all that different from this spring. Notre Dame had two defensive tackles sidelined for the year by injury — true again this spring — and only four capable bodies available, one of whom was a true freshman, also true this spring. Nonetheless, the Irish coaching staff saw fit to flip Ewell to a position with Kraemer and Ruhland as established starters, with Banks and Lugg pushing for playing time, with Gibbons and even Dirksen theoretically on hand, as well.

That was not a decision prompted by necessity. It was, more likely, an attempt to stir something within Ewell. If there was ever a time to keep a player at a position, it was in October with Ewell and defensive tackle. The fact that he flipped sides of the line anyway speaks volumes about his possible defensive future, or lack thereof.

2018 departures:
Mustipher and Bars were both leaders on and off the field. Where they go, or don’t go, in the NFL draft will not inherently reflect that. Their possible falls through the rounds are hardly their own faults, either.

Mustipher had the misfortune of excelling at center in college, a collegiate position the pros often look past, preferring to convert a guard to the snapping position. He will still get his chance, but it will be a steeper hill to climb.

If Bars had played all 13 games of 2018 as he played the first four-plus, he almost certainly would have been a first-round pick, in part because the guard could have conceivably moved to center if needed. Alas, a torn ACL in week five will knock Bars down to the middle rounds, at best. Again, he will have a chance to make a roster and maybe even contribute in 2019, but it is more likely he breaks onto the field in 2020.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Quinn Carroll
Notre Dame gets the letter: Andrew Kristofic
Notre Dame gets the letter: John Olmstead
Notre Dame gets the letter: Zeke Correll

Spring Outlook: Defensive backs
Spring Outlook: Linebackers
Spring Outlook: Defensive line

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.