Cain Madden’s ‘consistency’ key to the steady half of Notre Dame’s unsteady offensive line

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When Marshall transfer Cain Madden arrived at Notre Dame, his new teammates warned the offensive lineman about the workouts that awaited.

Not necessarily the football workouts, but those in the weight room with Matt Balis, the Irish strength and conditioning coordinator, who has a widespread and long-standing reputation for crafting grueling winter regimens.

“They tried to warn me,” Madden said. “I didn’t listen, and I should have listened.”

While the uptick in conditioning might have been a rude awakening for Madden, the rest of his adjustment has been less of a shock. On the field, Madden has taken the transition “one rep at a time,” and he has adopted the different mindset that comes with entering a new program and learning new techniques. The increased level of competition didn’t come as much of a surprise.

“Whenever you get to the Power Five level, it’s a little different, but at the end of the day, it’s football,” Madden said. “So you’ve just got to stay in front of people and block them.”

To put it simply, Madden has plenty of experience with doing just that. It makes him a valuable addition to an offensive line that, in an unusual fashion for Notre Dame, lacks experience this year. Madden was a staple of the Thundering Herd’s offensive line since his redshirt-freshman year in 2017, when he saw the field in every game. The following year, an injured starter meant Madden moved into the starting role. By the time he left Marshall after the 2020 campaign, Madden was a three-year starter at right guard — the same position he settled into with the Irish — with 31 career starts, matching the combined Notre Dame starts returning before the season.

As a whole, the Irish offensive line has struggled through four games. It has allowed 21 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. Those statistics are attributed to the offensive line, which has indeed made mistakes across the unit. But on Monday, Kelly got more specific. 

“The right side has been assignment correct. They’ve done a nice job,” Kelly said. “We need to meet that consistency on the right side with the left side.”

The left side that Kelly referred to contains junior Zeke Correll at left guard, now rotating with junior Andrew Kristofic, and a revolving door of players at left tackle due to multiple injuries. 

Blake Fisher, the freshman who won the initial starting job, suffered a meniscus injury in the season opener. His backup, sophomore Michael Carmody, sprained his ankle the following week. That meant third-stringer sophomore Tosh Baker’s number was called by week three. Baker rotated with freshman Joe Alt in last weekend’s 41-13 win against Wisconsin. Carmody may return against No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) on Saturday (2:30 ET; NBC).

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Madden said of the left-tackle situation. 

Along with stability, the biggest difference between the left side of the line and the right is experience. Not only is Madden in his sixth collegiate season, but on his right is Josh Lugg and on his left is center Jarrett Patterson: The former is in his fifth year in the program, the latter a senior and captain.

“I think from the first time I stepped in the building, Jarrett and Lugg accepted me as one of theirs and they’ve been really, really helpful in this process,” Madden said.

After four games, it feels as though Madden’s acclimation process has given way to an established role as a constant on the offensive line — which is fitting for someone whose answer to multiple questions was being consistent. 

His biggest contribution to the Notre Dame team? His favorite thing about working with offensive line coach Jeff Quinn? The key to his initial progression from a walk-on to a three-year starter at Marshall?

To the last of those three questions, Madden said, “I don’t want to keep saying the same thing, but I think staying the course and being consistent.”

Kelly used the same word when talking about the need for the left side of the line to rise to the level of the right side. A more consistent performance across the entire offensive line — and across the whole offense — would pay dividends.

“This isn’t, ‘Let’s throw the O-line under the bus,’” Kelly said. “Everybody’s got to pitch in here, coaching, players, and we all got to get better. We’re committed to doing that.”

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.