Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit

Caleb Johnson
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-5 ⅝, 275 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: The early-enrolled freshman obviously has four seasons of eligibility remaining and will preserve all four if he appears in four or fewer games in 2021, which should absolutely be the case.
Depth Chart: Notre Dame might not know who its starting tackles are, but it has a grasp on the four that will make up the two-deep. Johnson is another rung yet below that, meaning it will be a year of scout-team work for the Florida native.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Johnson was long committed to Auburn before flipping to the Irish only three weeks before December’s signing period. Early enrollees do not often turn their recruitment on its head that late in the cycle, but the uncertainty created by Auburn boosters forcing out Gus Malzahn put Johnson in a difficult position.

Alabama and Florida also sought the No. 31 tackle in the class.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Many of the critics of paying players insist locker rooms will become divided when only quarterbacks and star receivers get paid handsomely. Not only was that always a bad faith argument considering players already know who gets the most benefits, illicit or otherwise — not to mention, hefty contracts do not seem to turn NFL locker rooms upside down — but it was also inaccurate. Find a more marketable group than the Notre Dame offensive line.

QUOTE
The only mention of Johnson this spring came when fifth-year tackle Josh Lugg was praising all the early-enrolled offensive linemen. Johnson did not earn the hype that tackle Blake Fisher and guard Rocco Spindler did as they closed in on starting roles, but he impressed Lugg all the same.

“These kids are supposed to be in high school,” Lugg said. “What you want to see from them is they’re automatically following the standard, they’re going to pick up the tradition, they’re going to understand what this offensive line is about. They all surpassed that, even Caleb Johnson.

“When they came in, they understood that the tradition never graduates. Even though we lost upperclassmen, it stayed. What the standard is is the standard, and there’s nothing less.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN JOHNSON SIGNED
“Notre Dame has a pair of sophomore tackles it intends to lean on as reserves in the short-term in Andrew Kristofic and Quinn Carroll, and Blake Fisher is more ready for playing time among this year’s signees, so Johnson should have some time to focus on his strength and conditioning.

“Last year’s dearth of offensive line recruits gives Johnson a genuine chance at playing time in 2022 if either Kristofic or Carroll do not pan out, and even if they do, he will have a larger window to seize since no one is immediately in front of him in the pecking order, beginning in 2024 or so. That may sound like a long way off, but it would fit with Notre Dame’s general trend among offensive tackles, Robert Hainsey aside.”

2021 OUTLOOK
When Lugg says, “What the standard is is the standard,” he also endorses the Irish habit of slowly grooming offensive linemen. The possibilities of Fisher and Spindler aside, the expectation remains that an offensive lineman will work on his strength and conditioning, better his form and so forth for at least a season, more likely two. That allows him to get better and acknowledges the depth of Notre Dame’s offensive line.

While more attention should be paid to Johnson than widely has been, a byproduct of Fisher and Spindler getting so much due, his time in 2021 will be spent in that prototypical fashion, far from any public focus. In particular, some fine tuning of Johnson’s footwork could go a long way in his development.

DOWN THE ROAD
When Lugg heads to the next level, be it after 2021 or, thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, after 2022, a starting job will open at right tackle. Johnson will compete for that gig with the likes of junior Quinn Carroll and the runner-up in the current left tackle competition between Fisher and sophomore Tosh Baker.

Johnson may seem the least likely candidate of those three or four, but an Auburn pledge deserves notice. The Tigers are a mercurial national power, but a national power all the same, one that has produced quality offensive linemen for years now. Johnson was not forced away from Auburn; this was not a de-commitment in optics only. He opted elsewhere because of the debacle that was the end of the Malzahn tenure (a situation that got only worse).

Johnson will contribute to the Irish offensive line at some point. Even if he does not win that honor in 2022, his eligibility clock will be a season behind Fisher’s, and Fisher may spend only three years in college if his spring performance is any indication of what is to come.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center