With Notre Dame returning 114 starts along its offensive line in 2020, you can be forgiven for expecting the spring to be spent building some version of next-level cohesion in front of Ian Book. The Irish would be glad to be so lucky, especially after a year that included nearly three dozen false starts.
Instead, Notre Dame may simply be striving for health. The exact availabilities of several banged-up linemen will not be clear until after the first practice on March 5, when Irish head coach Brian Kelly meets with the media for the first time since Notre Dame trounced Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. Until then, there is plenty of logic to expecting a few starters to take it easy in March and April, at least early in the 15 practices.
Those who may be limited this spring:
— Rising sophomore tackle Quinn Carroll tore his ACL in August, a timeline that will presumably keep him sidelined through the spring.
— Fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer suffered a knee injury at Michigan at the end of October, cutting short a campaign that had elicited some All-American speculation.
— Rising senior right tackle Robert Hainsey broke his ankle in November.
— Rising senior left guard Aaron Banks dealt with a foot injury last summer, one that could give reason to reduce his workload when able moving forward.
— Rising junior tackle Cole Mabry dealt with preseason injuries in August, ones that limited him to just one appearance in 2019, despite more mop-up opportunities than that.
— There could always be another concern or two, for precautionary measures as much as anything else.
Those who should be full-go this spring, albeit with that previous sentence’s disclaimer:
— Fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Rising senior tackle Josh Lugg, who could essentially serve as the backup at four positions.
— Former walk-on center Colin Grunhard, on scholarship at least through the spring.
— Rising senior guard Dillan Gibbons
— Rising juniors center Jarrett Patterson and guard John Dirksen
— Rising sophomores tackle Andrew Kristofic, guard John Olmstead, center Zeke Correll.
None of the above injuries should spur worry about a player’s availability in Dublin, and that kind of veteran depth takes away any pressure on incoming freshmen, including the coming pair of Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody. Both come well-regarded, Baker slightly more so, and should be considered pieces of the Irish line in the future, but that time will not be in 2020, even if new injuries pop up down the line.
Depth Chart Possibilities:
There are two versions of this conversation, one with health and one with the current reality. If the Irish are healthy, the starting five should be the same as last season (from left to right: Eichenberg, Banks, Patterson, Kraemer, Hainsey), but that may not be the look for much of the spring.
As the possible utility knife in good times, the springtime absences may allow Lugg to get work in across the board. He filled in well for Hainsey last season, though much of his experience up until then had been at guard.
The starting five, in the long run, are clear, as is Lugg as the sixth piece, a bit of a luxury in that regard. A reliable No. 7, however, would be good to identify, given the likelihood one starter goes down at some point. Kristofic showed promise in mop-up duties last season, perhaps positioning him as a stopgap until the next generation of highly-touted linemen are ready.
Rarely does a utility lineman apply at center, albeit Lugg may be the exception. Patterson’s emergence in his first work at the pivot lessened that need in 2019, and his presumed growth from year one to year two should further that confidence, while either Grunhard or Correll backs him up.
Returning starts, appearances:
Kraemer: 29 career starts across three seasons.
Eichenberg: 26 career starts, all 26 games of the last two seasons.
Hainsey: 22 career starts, though he also played in competitive in all 13 games in 2017 as a freshman, bringing his career appearances to 34.
Banks: 19 career starts, including all 13 of 2019, and 26 total appearances.
Patterson: 13 career starts, all of 2019.
Lugg: 5 career starts as an injury replacement last season, with 26 career appearances.
His 11 career starts may seem few enough to warrant little praise, but Trevor Ruhland’s career was a story of utter perseverance. Despite three surgeries on his left knee, two torn pectorals, a broken elbow, a torn labrum, a broken ankle and, last but not at all least as anyone who has suffered one knows, a broken nose, Ruhland stepped in as an injury replacement in both 2018 and 2019 when Notre Dame very much needed him to.
“I’m beat up, I won’t lie to you,” Ruhland said after his first start in 2019, replacing an injured Kraemer. “I’ve been told not to play, that I shouldn’t play because I have the knee of an 80-year-old, [doctors] say.”
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The Playoff run in 2018 also included Ruhland spelling Kraemer at points so the latter could be coached up, creating more consistent play via, oddly enough, inconsistent alignments.
The Irish should have depth moving forward, but they desperately needed it from Ruhland the last couple years.
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