Offensive linemen move around the line frequently, maybe especially at Notre Dame. From tackle to guard (Tommy Kraemer last year, for example). From guard to tackle (Alex Bars could have made that move last season if an injury created the need). From guard to center (Nick Martin’s NFL career). Those moves are usually either a flip from one side of the line to the other, or only one spot in or out. A move from right guard to left tackle would be unusual, as would be a move from left tackle to center.
It is that exact latter move that the Irish have executed to find their surprise starter at center, sophomore-to-be Jarrett Patterson. Notre Dame opened spring practice Saturday with Patterson in the middle, no longer backing up senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, the position in which Patterson saw mop-up duty last season.
“The one thing that really stood out last year was (Patterson is) assignment-correct, emotionally-stable in a sense that every single day you got the same kid,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We like that at the center position. He’s going to have some help with the guards in terms of they have some experience and they’ll be able to call some things for him.”
Patterson spent parts of 2018 working at center on the scout team, per Kelly, and then he spent all of bowl prep at center. Beginning after the Cotton Bowl, the move was set, and Patterson and senior quarterback Ian Book have emphasized getting reps to build chemistry, hoping to make it “second nature,” per Book.
With six months to go before the snaps will come with genuine pressure, some inconsistency yet may be expected.
“We need to continue to work on his technique snapping the ball, not that the ball was all over the place, but we’ve got some work to do technique-wise there,” Kelly said. “We really feel like that’s a good position for him.”
Patterson’s signing with Notre Dame was seen 13 months ago as the first proof offensive line coach Jeff Quinn had the chops to suitably replace Harry Hiestand. A former Arizona State commit, Patterson chose the Irish over UCLA on National Signing Day, telling Quinn the night before, at nearly midnight Eastern time. His arrival in South Bend was marked by strong fundamentals from the outset, which partly led to that taste of playing time, more than any of the other freshman offensive linemen garnered.
“We saw that his technique was very advanced from when he came in,” junior right tackle Robert Hainsey said. “He was able to ride that and keep improving it, taking all the coaching he can.
“I think the reason he was moved to center was because of how confident he is and how advanced his football IQ is. He understands our offense well and he’s able to run it.”
Presuming Hainsey at right tackle, Kraemer at right guard, junior Aaron Banks at left guard (limited Saturday by a sprained foot) and Eichenberg at left tackle, Notre Dame has 55 starts returning along the offensive line, including 42 from last season alone. Quinn has an experienced unit, even if with a first-time center.
That 55 would be 60 if fifth-year guard Trevor Ruhland made the move to center, as was presumed for much of the last two months. Currently sidelined as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, Ruhland will instead serve as a multi-purpose offensive lineman, per Kelly.
“Ruhland is going to be a guy that is a utility player for us that can play the guard and center positions,” Kelly said. “Quite frankly, he’s got some things physically that make it difficult for him to play maybe 72 plays.”
By that, Kelly was referring to Ruhland’s durability. Two torn pectorals, now a knee injury, and a frame a bit slighter than the rest of the Irish line limit his ability to slog through a 13-game season. If needed to step in for Banks, Patterson or Kraemer for a half, though, Ruhland could do so with the experience to hold his own and not inhibit the game plan.
He may be needed at center, especially. Junior Josh Lugg awaits at guard, but at center, no one has experience or even vague tenure. Sophomore Luke Jones theoretically backs up Patterson, though out with a sprained ankle Saturday. Then comes early-enrolled freshman Zeke Correll.
No matter what, the center position was going to take a step backward following the departure of three-year starter and captain Sam Mustipher, but getting Patterson into the habit for all of spring practice should be a proactive solution to filling the hole.
Lenzy all in on football
Earlier this winter, rising sophomore Braden Lenzy tweeted he was bypassing the indoor track season, notable given the role sprinting played in Lenzy’s back-and-forth recruitment. The reasoning is simple: Lenzy did not play last season, in part because he was not strong enough, in part because there were solid players ahead of him. Now, he wants to get on the field, and some weight room dedication is needed, as is full attention in every spring practice to rise up the depth chart.
“He’s really focused on wanting to play this year,” Kelly said. “He felt like he needed to get stronger and he was worried about not being able to fulfill the things that he came here for, and that was to make an impact in football. He didn’t come here with his first priority being track. He would have went to Oregon if that was number one.”
Lenzy is listed 14 pounds heavier than he was in 2018, so consider the weight room aspect of this approach an early success.
Kmet soon to be all in on football
The Irish need rising junior tight end Cole Kmet to establish himself as a starter this offseason. As much as the Notre Dame baseball team might want him to keep throwing strikes as a relief pitcher, Kelly’s staff gets priority. Thus, the only spring practice Kmet will miss was Saturday’s, following a Friday night diamond appearance.
“We felt like in practice one, where we weren’t doing a whole lot — we didn’t want him to miss some contact scrimmages,” Kelly said. “So working with baseball, we felt like this would be the one to give up.”