Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive line

Notre Dame offensive line
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A bill comes due when you return five starting offensive linemen, and in 2021, Notre Dame will pay that bill as it looks to replace four of them from 2020.

Thus is the cyclical nature of all college football rosters, thus is why it is so hard to stay atop the proverbial mountain as Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson have for most of the last decade.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The Irish returned more than 100 career starts along their offensive line in 2020. If there was reason to arguably expect a Playoff berth during the tumultuous offseason, it was because of that line’s experience and chemistry together. Then again, it took a bit for that chemistry to show.

“I hate to say it, but it takes a couple drives to get up to game speed,” fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg said after the season opener against Duke. “We definitely started off slow as an offense, the first couple drives, the first quarter, but as the game went on, we started to run the ball a lot better, we started to attack our targets a lot more. … 

“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough, but at the same time, we have to start quicker, we have to attack more, and we just need to focus on improving and going back to basics.”

Notre Dame fans were distraught by that initial offensive line performance — despite a 27-13 victory in which the Irish averaged 4.9 yards per carry (sacks adjusted) and scored twice on the ground — but that worry dissipated bit by bit with each week. That chemistry showed itself.

Even in a season when center Jarret Patterson was injured as he played perhaps the best of all the offensive linemen, Notre Dame landed three offensive linemen on All-American teams, with Eichenberg a consensus first-team selection and left guard Aaron Banks also on multiple first-teams. The line, with Patterson still at the pivot, provided the push the Irish needed to upset No. 1 Clemson in November.

In retrospect, the loss of Patterson to a broken foot was not the difference for Notre Dame against Alabama in the Rose Bowl, but heading into the Playoff semifinal, the change from Patterson to Zeke Correll felt like the one setback the Irish could not afford as they looked to pull off that upset. (This was, in fact, a primary conversation topic in the AT&T Stadium press box as that New Year’s Day kickoff approached.)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Only Patterson returns, and likely not at his old position.

Banks was a possibility to return, but coming off a first-team All-American year, he recognized the chance to be a mid-round draft pick as something to chase, something that could perhaps improve to a third-round stock with a good spring.

But the Irish are not truly left with only one returning starter, even if that will be the shorthand these next six months. Correll started two games and was already considered the center of the future; fifth-year Josh Lugg returns eight starts split between center, right guard and right tackle; and technically speaking, fifth-year Dillan Gibbons started the regular-season finale at right guard as fifth-year Tommy Kraemer played a limited role after an emergency appendectomy.

A total of 32 returning starts is a far cry from last offseason’s 114, but it is not a start from scratch, particularly not with Patterson likely to garner some preseason hype as he (likely, almost certainly) moves to left tackle.

The key detail to those 32 starts is they provide a beginning framework. Patterson at left tackle, Correll at center and Lugg at either right guard or right tackle will give offensive line coach Jeff Quinn some stability as he searches for the final two pieces. Quinn’s first recruit back in January of 2018, Patterson has long been seen as an eventual tackle. His 6-foot-4 ½-frame will bring the wanted length on the outside, and he has quick enough feet to match most edge rushers. Correll is the most natural center of the group, and Lugg’s nearly 6-foot-7 frame will provide trusted mass at either right-side position.

The question to wonder all spring will be who joins them.

Gibbons: Back for a fifth year presumably with an expectation of playing time.
Rising junior Quinn Carroll: Lost the 2019 season to an ACL tear and then was lost in the depth chart in 2020, but is the most-touted recruit of these upperclassmen possibilities.
Rising senior John Dirksen: Well-regarded as a backup, something of a stable option in this conversation.
Early-enrolled freshmen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher: Though Fisher is seen more as a tackle prospect, guard is the more likely destination for a Day One freshman. (Let Robert Hainsey forever be the exception that proves this rule.) Both Spindler and Fisher would start for more than half the FBS to begin their careers, if not even half the Power Fives.

That underscores the embarrassment of riches Notre Dame continues to enjoy along its offensive line. It pays this bill with a returning starter that could have claimed to be the best among four All-Americans last year if not for a broken foot, the best center on the roster, two fifth-year linemen with starting experience and a trio of highly-touted but unproven possibilities.

To carry this “payment due” metaphor a step further, Quinn will not have to stretch a savings account, he will not have to worry about next month’s rent. He just needs to make sure to remember to submit payment this spring.

It should also be noted, the Irish will have 13 scholarship offensive linemen on hand this spring, so even if Patterson is limited (Lisfranc injuries can be fickle) or someone else suffers a minor injury, Quinn will still have two full units to work with. It may seem a small thing, but it is a notable one when looking to reestablish the chemistry that even a completely-returning line lacked to open the 2020 season.

Before we get into spring practices, any questions? Let’s hear them: insidetheirish@gmail.com

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