Zeke Correll might not know who’s lining up next to him on a daily basis.
The 6-foot-3, 295-pound junior represents one of the few constants on Notre Dame’s offensive line as the Irish replace four multi-year starters up front.
But even Correll, who started two games at center last season and spent the first seven spring practices only at center, doesn’t have a starting position locked up yet.
“At this time, I don’t think Zeke has given us anything other than what we saw last year,” said head coach Brian Kelly following practice No. 7 on Saturday, “where he started doing a nice job, but we’re not closing our minds towards any combinations on that offensive line.
“And I say that because I want to keep it competitive. I don’t want to give Zeke the starting job at center, because I want to keep competition. Zeke’s not given that offensive position. He’s not the starting center yet. Jarrett Patterson can go play that center position and we’re a good football team.”
Patterson started 21 consecutive games at center until he suffered a season-ending foot injury against Boston College last year. Correll stepped in for Patterson the following game against North Carolina, in which he started and finished despite an ankle injury. Correll missed the next two games before returning to start at center in the 31-14 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Correll played well enough in his two starts that Patterson, a senior, will be given an opportunity to land the starting left tackle role when completely healthy. But Kelly doesn’t want Correll to get too comfortable.
“I have to keep him growing and getting better,” Kelly said. “He has a lot to work on, and I’m not ready to tell (offensive line) coach (Jeff) Quinn that we’re penciling him in in the fall.”
Competition isn’t new for Correll. Growing up the youngest of nine children in his family taught him a few lessons about fighting for what you want.
“You always wanted to win,” Correll said. “Whether I was playing checkers with my brothers or shooting hoops in the front yard, I’d really be upset whenever I lost. Having all four of my brothers play college sports — three playing football, one playing baseball — that really helped set my competitive edge.”
With Patterson currently sidelined, Correll’s current competition is essentially himself. Junior Andrew Kristofic and sophomore Michael Carmody have both taken snaps at center this spring, but they’re also trying to climb the depth chart at other positions.
The offensive line has so many open spots that more than a few players are competing at different positions. That’s why Patterson could have graduate senior Dillan Gibbons or freshman Rocco Spindler lining up next to him at left guard and senior John Dirksen or junior Quinn Carroll lining up next to him at right guard depending on the day.
“Having a bunch of different combinations of players and being able to work with all of them, it helps a lot,” Correll said, “because you’re not always going to get the same look from a defense or you’re not always going to get the same block from the guy next to you. You just have to trust that they’re going to do their job.
“I trust the guy next to me always. That’s just the way it has to be. It’s great for getting a bunch of guys ready and getting them football-ready for the season.”
Correll learned how prepared he was when thrust into the starting lineup nine games into last season. Prior to that, Correll’s playing time as a sophomore was limited to late snaps in blowout victories over South Florida and Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame’s offense accumulated 478 yards (6.9 yards per play) in the 31-17 win over North Carolina with Correll in the lineup even as he played through the ankle injury in the second half.
“It was definitely really frustrating for me,” Correll said, “because I was so excited to go get my first start. I went out there and got hurt. I played through it, battled through, had a decent game.”
When Correll returned to the starting lineup against Alabama, the Irish offense struggled to find as much as success and averaged 4.7 yards per play. Correll only allowed one quarterback pressure in his two starts. It came late in the fourth quarter against the Crimson Tide with the Irish attempting an unlikely comeback.
The ups and downs of those two performances should help Correll prepare for a starting role this season.
“Playing in a big-time game like that,” Correll said, “it gives you a lot of experience especially being able to handle the pressure and understanding what a big game feels like.”
That game pressure probably outweighs the competitive pressure Kelly and Quinn are putting on Correll by not naming him a starter. But a little competition never hurt.
“We have a lot of guys playing a bunch of different positions,” Correll said. “We have a lot of guys that are very versatile, like able to play all three or at least two positions, so we’ll get a lot of players a lot of good reps this year.”