SOUTH BEND —As the youngest of nine children, Zeke Correll had plenty of opportunities while growing up to learn to wait his turn.
Apparently, the Notre Dame sophomore never became very good at it, which actually kind of plays in his favor Friday when he steps into a starting role on what to this point had been the unofficial consensus top offensive line in the nation.
“This unit seems to be the gold standard of steady weekly improvement,” the Joe Moore Award committee wrote Monday of the Irish offensive line in its midseason honor roll assessment. “If they can stay healthy, they’ve got a real chance.”
That Correll will make his first collegiate start at center for the No. 2 Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) at 25th-ranked North Carolina (6-2, 6-2 ACC) Friday and senior Josh Lugg will fill in right next to Correll at right guard means the “stay healthy” part is out the window.
The Joe Moore Award, annually given to the nation’s best O-line unit, remains in play, theoretically.
“Lose a couple of really good players and we plug them in with two equally fine players,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “And we’re excited about their opportunities.”
Only one of the two missing pieces, junior center Jarrett Patterson, is out for the long term. He had surgery Friday for a Lisfranc fracture he sustained and played through in ND’s 45-31 win at Boston College on Nov. 14.
“We’ll have him back obviously next year,” Kelly said. “Disappointed for him, was having a great season. I think he’ll do quite well from this surgery.”
A much quicker return appears to be in order for grad senior guard Tommy Kraemer, who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Friday night.
Because there was no rupture and because he was able to have laparoscopic surgery, Kraemer could be cleared for football-related activities as soon as next week, per Kelly.
For this week, the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Lugg will also serve as Correll’s backup at center in addition to his spot start at guard. He does have five career starts, all last season, filling in at right tackle for an injured Robert Hainsey,
In a conversation earlier this season, Kelly projected both Lugg and Correll as starters in 2021, with the Irish expected to lose tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey, as well as Kraemer to the NFL after the 2020 season, and possibly left guard Aaron Banks.
Correll, a four-star prospect with an offer list that included Clemson and Ohio State, was recruited out of Cincinnati to be a long-term answer at center. He enrolled early, in the spring semester of 2019, to perhaps put that plan in motion right away.
But while the now 6-3, 288-pound Correll had the nasty streak, the technique and the ambition to play early, he didn’t have the bulk.
“We really liked everything about Zeke, (but) he was 265 pounds,” Kelly said.
And Patterson, recruited to play left tackle and with an aptitude to be really good at it, was a revelation when the Irish made him a spring experiment at center in 2019. So when Patterson returns, Correll’s long-term future shifts back to guard.
In the present, North Carolina will likely test Correll to see if the owner of 46 career collegiate snaps is the weakest link.
“At that center position, he’s nimble, he’s quick,” Kelly countered. “He can snap the football. He’s very smart, a really good pass protector.
“If you look at all the reps that he got as a center going in in the second half of games, we’ve gotten a chance to see him quite a bit and we like what he’s doing.”
Back in the running
The bye week came at a good time for Notre Dame’s running back corps.
No. 1 back Kyren Williams was held out of the second half of the BC win on Nov. 14 for precautionary reasons, finishing with season lows in carries (9) and yards (37). And reserve C’Bo Flemister limped off the field after rushing for 53 yards and 10 carries with two touchdowns.
That led to a career-high 17 carries for freshman Chris Tyree (who ran for 74 yards) and to some initial postgame concern the Irish might need to fortify their numbers at running back.
Then came the good news.
“C’Bo will practice (Monday),” Kelly said. “He had an ankle (injury). He ran (Sunday). Our trainers were optimistic that he’ll be ready to play this weekend. We’ll be smart with him, but he should be a go for this weekend.
“Kyren had a little bit of an ankle, but nothing major. The week off did him really good. He looked good in the weight room (Monday). His power looked good coming off the floor. I don’t expect any problems with Kyren.”
Collectively, the Irish are tied with North Carolina for 14th nationally in rushing offense, and fourth among Power 5 teams, at 233.5 yards per game.
If ND needs to add a fourth running back to the stable, Kelly said it’ll be sophomore Kendall Abdur-Rahman, who splits time at wide receiver as well.
“We really don’t want to mess with Jafar (Armstrong), because we want to give him a fair chance to get comfortable there at the wide receiver position,” he said. “That’s kind of how that’s gone down at the running back position.”
Armstrong was Notre Dame’s No. 1 option at running back at the start of the 2019 season before injuries set him back, and again heading into spring practice last March before Williams and Tyree surged in the summer.
Left off the official Notre Dame depth chart inadvertently, junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy continues to progress from a chronic hamstring injury that’s limited him to six catches for 63 yards and a TD this season and none in the past five games.
ND’s fastest wide receiver hasn’t played in the last three games and didn’t play in the Sept. 12 season opener with Duke, either.
“He’s going to move from what we considered modified work … to 11-on-11 work this week, which is 1-on-1 against our defense,” Kelly said. “That is really the next step toward 100% being cleared to go.
“We’ll see how he works through that. He’ll do that today. If he gets the green light, I’ll pencil him in, and I’ll get you guys a new two-deep (chart).”
Notre Dame has consistently listed junior TaRiq Bracy and freshman Clarence Lewis as an either/or proposition at the starting field cornerback position this season.
Against the quarterback Kelly says throws the best deep ball in the ACC and its leader in passing efficiency — North Carolina sophomore Sam Howell — the Irish are rolling with the freshman this week.
“Well, it’s been close, him and TaRiq,” Kelly said. “It’s been a battle all year. I think quite frankly, they’ll both continue to battle at that position.
“I just think as we evaluate each week, we just do what’s best for that unit. And Clarence has done some things from an overall unit standpoint enough to earn the starting position.”
Weathering the storming
A little more than two weeks after the ND students stormed the field at Notre Dame Stadium to celebrate an Irish upset of then-No. 1 Clemson, the football team’s COVID-19 report Monday was about as good as it gets during a pandemic.
In 191 tests administered last week, including the most recent round on Saturday, there were zero positive tests and zero players identified through contact tracing that needed to be quarantined. Overall, one player remains in isolation from a previous week’s positive test.
Back to the bubble
With most of the student population having left campus until next semester, the Irish football team gets back to more of a semi-bubble atmosphere for the balance of the season.
No players left town during their mini-break on the weekend, and they’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in South Bend on Saturday after returning from the trip to North Carolina.
“Once you step outside this environment that we’ve created, you open yourself up to the uncertainty,” Kelly said. “Our guys understand that. They know that this is what they signed up for.
“It’s not easy, but they’re committed to it. They’ve gone this far. There’s no turning back right now.
“They know the next few weeks are certainly going to be similar. That’s why Thanksgiving looks a lot different, but they’re prepared for that.”