Experience along Notre Dame’s offensive line lies in the eye of the beholder as Lugg, Patterson and Hiestand return

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 USC at Notre Dame
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Josh Lugg is not prone to exaggeration, and as he returns for a sixth year at Notre Dame, after already appearing in 48 games in his career with 20 starts, his longevity does not need to be embellished. So when he said he committed to the Irish in 2014, that was nothing but a reflection of just how long Lugg has been tied to Notre Dame. He actually committed in mid-August of 2015.

In other words, by the end of the 2022 season, Lugg will have been pledged or playing for the Irish for eight football seasons.

If anyone can speak to what makes Notre Dame’s offensive line unique and consistent over years and years, it is Lugg. Passing that viewpoint on to the next generation of linemen was the primary reason he returned for 2022 thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.

“I want to help Notre Dame win, I want to become a better version of myself and win the Joe Moore Award, and a lot of the emphasis is on how I can help these younger guys coming in develop,” Lugg said Friday. “Just like Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson did for me when I was coming in.”

Extending Lugg’s tenure back through McGlinchey’s and Bivin’s ties his viewpoint back to March of 2012, when the two highly-sought tackles committed within a day of each other.

“If I have another year where I can do that and help guys become Notre Dame men, then it’s definitely attractive to come back,” Lugg said.

That is an abstract and idealistic concept, but Lugg’s repeated mentions of the Joe Moore Award — given annually to the best offensive line in college football — sets a more distinct benchmark for success in 2022, and one that conveniently ties to the new Irish offensive line coach, who happened to recruit Lugg (and, for that matter, McGlinchey) back in 2014—errr, 2015.

Notre Dame won the Joe Moore Award in 2017 under Harry Hiestand, with Lugg on the roster but not seeing any playing time.

“Harry built the standard of excellence for the Notre Dame offensive line and we are excited to have him back in our program,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said upon announcing Hiestand’s hiring earlier this week. “Our focus is on player development and pushing our players to reach their full potential and that is where Harry excels.”

That also seems to be where Hiestand and Lugg will overlap in 2022. Notre Dame returns four starters on its offensive line and likely knows its starting five already: from left to right, rising sophomore Joe Alt, rising senior Andrew Kristofic, fifth-year Jarrett Patterson, Lugg and rising sophomore Blake Fisher. Among those names, three have started a total of 17 games. Combined with Lugg’s 20 starts and Patterson’s career tally of 34, those 71 returning starts are an impressive number, but the emphasis will still be on youth, even if both Lugg and Patterson qualify as four-year starters. (Adding rising senior Zeke Correll‘s starts jumps that to 79 returning starts, though Correll looks slated for backup duty in 2022 as of now.)

But the knowledge of that first-string before even entering spring practices — and, of course, it could change, but those five do seem rather clear cut — should allow the Irish to avoid some of 2021’s struggles.

“We had [six] different starting rotations out there,” Lugg said. “So when you can all play together on the field and be together off the field, it helps us come together even more, and we can rely on each other, we can trust each other.”

Time spent together off the field is a trait particular to an offensive line unit. As an extreme example, at Notre Dame last year, the offensive line signed NIL deals together, walk-ons included. That “brotherhood” goes deeper than the return of a coach. Lugg’s return goes deeper than the return of a coach, even the coach who first recruited him nearly a decade ago.

“I did not know who my new position coach would be until after I decided that I would be returning,” Lugg said. “A lot of my decision went into coming back to help Notre Dame win and help these young guys coming in and be a better version of myself, be a better football player.

“When I came here in 2017, when I committed in [2015], I didn’t commit to a coach. So why would I commit to a sixth year for a coach?

“A lot of it is the Notre Dame brand, what we can accomplish with the brotherhood here, and that hasn’t changed in my five years going on six.”

PATTERSON’S LOGIC
Every player who forgoes possible selection in the NFL draft for another year of college does so for his own reasons and then explains those with phrasings we have heard in winters past and will hear in winters to come. Lugg spun a program-first focus, though he also did not have the same draft profile as Patterson does.

Patterson distinctly wants to improve his draft standing, something he thinks he can do after talking to past Irish offensive linemen who returned for the same purpose and found success.

“The general consensus was coming back for a fifth year will only help you get better,” Patterson said. “For me, a big concern was risk of injury because I had a serious one [in 2020], but putting it in perspective, it’s such a small freak thing that happened, it’s really not that big of a deal.

“Once I reached certainty and thought of other great O-linemen that came back for a fifth year here, I kind of knew that was the best thing for me to do.”

Improvement at the line’s fulcrum will obviously help that line develop the cohesion that lacked at the start of both 2020 and 2021, though Patterson sees the relative youth of some linemen differently than others.

“All those guys come back with experience,” he said. “It’s not a young group anymore. Those guys have been able to play some big-time games. We’re going to be counting on them, they’re going to have to start to mature, being leaders, things like that.

“It’s exciting to have all those guys and really just build another year bonding with them on and off the field.”