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Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Offensive line

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With this position group, the headline and continued subheads are not exactly accurate. Broadly speaking, where Notre Dame’s offensive line was is where it, well, is. Yes, that is a convoluted sentence. The perk of returning six starting offensive linemen renders some verb tenses vague.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Due to injuries in 2018, the Irish were already returning four starters this season, including a pair of three-year starters on the right side. General development, if granting that presumption, would leave only one question along the line, sophomore center Jarrett Patterson.

After projecting as a tackle, Irish sophomore Jarrett Patterson ably started 13 games at center in 2019. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Any doubt tied to Patterson emanated from outside the program; it did not take long for the converted tackle to impress in the spring. Frankly, he might have impressed enough even before spring practices.

“We had him working on scout team, snapping the football and then during (2018) bowl prep, we had him working there, as well,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the first day of spring practices. “When we started in January, he’s been snapping since then.”

In that respect, Notre Dame knew how it would fill out its line. The outside expectation before that March practice was that fifth-year Trevor Ruhland would get the first crack at earning the starting gig. The same practice that publicly established Patterson also made it clear what Ruhland’s role would be.

“Ruhland is going to be a guy that is a utility player for us that can play the guard and center position,” Kelly said. “But quite frankly, he’s got some things physically that make it difficult for him to play maybe 72 plays.”

Every so often, some undeniable honesty comes through coachspeak.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
The comments on this article will fill with criticisms of the Irish offensive line and its inability to open holes for the running game. Those critiques are valid, but only to an extent. Notre Dame’s running game was not exactly a liability, averaging 179.2 yards per game, good for No. 45 in the country. That included an average of 4.96 yards per carry, No. 25 in the country.

Those figures were bumped up by jet sweeps featuring sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy and consistent scrambles from senior quarterback Ian Book, but those are all a piece of the bigger picture.

“We have the ability to run the football when needed,” Kelly said following the regular-season finale. “As you saw today, we rushed for almost 200 yards when we needed to.” (190 yards, to be exact.)

This was not the dominant running game seen in both 2017 and 2018. It simply was not the offensive line’s strength, though the lack of a top-tier running back certainly compounded the issue. Consider, even this path against Bowling Green did not yield a touchdown.

Instead, the Irish line’s strength was in pass protection. Pro Football Focus ranked it the second-best pass-blocking unit in the country. Opponents recorded multiple sacks only three times, the other 10 games tallying a total of six sacks.

To be fair, just as not all the fault of the running struggles falls on the offensive line, not all the credit for pass protection success belongs to it, either. Senior running back Tony Jones’ excellent blitz pickups helped, as did Book’s skill in diagnosing defenses.

Nonetheless, giving up only 15 sacks in a season is something to file away for 2020.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Speaking of 2020, Pro Football Focus considers four of the returning Irish linemen to be among the best 30 in the country, the exception being current senior right guard Tommy Kraemer. Add in junior Josh Lugg, who started five games in place of current junior Robert Hainsey (broken ankle), and the Irish line situation could not be much better off heading into Book’s fifth year.

There will, of course, be areas for improvement. While there may be speculation new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will implement new blocking schemes, the greater concern should be a better handling of silent snap counts. While no atmosphere like that found in Athens awaits Notre Dame in 2020 (either Lambeau Field or the Los Angeles Coliseum may be the loudest), the false start issue extended well past the hedges, topping out at 33 in the regular season, per the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James’ count.

The complaints about the Irish ground game may be the loudest, but that area of concern did not rear its ugly head at Georgia in an unexpectedly costly fashion. If not for those repeated false starts, Notre Dame may have won itself a Playoff berth, to jump to a very mild conclusion. (The same could be said of “if Jafar Armstrong or Braden Lenzy was healthy” or “if Chris Finke had not bobbled a pass directly into an interception.”)

The starters will be the same next season; the starts simply need to be better-timed.