Notre Dame's offensive line commits ready to prove their lofty rankings

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Zeke Correll knows only one starting spot will be opening on Notre Dame’s offensive line.

Just days after center Sam Mustipher’s eligibility will expire following the College Football Playoff, Correll will start competing to be next in line. Correll, a four-star offensive lineman from Cincinnati Anderson, will enroll at Notre Dame in January to begin his college career.

The preparation for the position battle at center has already started for Correll. Despite playing right guard at Anderson, Correll has been snapping every day to ready himself for a position switch.

“They need someone to fill in that spot,” Correll said. “If I enroll early, I’ll have a better shot of getting that spot or even just getting playing time at that spot.”

The chances of a freshman starting at center are slim, but that won’t deter Correll. He plans to enter spring practice with a fair shot of beating out the likes of Trevor Ruhland, Colin Grunhard and Luke Jones. Only Ruhland, who could return as a fifth-year senior, has starting experience but it came in five games at left and right guard this season.

Rivals ranks Correll as the No. 6 offensive guard and No. 95 overall in the 2019 class. 247Sports slates him as the No. 8 offensive guard and No. 150 overall.

The 6-foot-3, 275-pound Correll may have the best chance of breaking into Notre Dame’s starting lineup first among the four offensive line commits set to sign with the Irish on Wednesday and enroll early in January, but they all come to Notre Dame with lofty expectations from the recruiting industry.

Each — Correll, Quinn Carroll, Andrew Kristofic and John Olmstead — has received a four-star rating from both Rivals and 247Sports. Each has at least one overall ranking from either Rivals or 247Sports that puts them among the top 120 players in the 2019 class regardless of position.

The current recruiting cycle is Jeff Quinn’s first since taking over as Notre Dame’s offensive line coach, and he’s gathered an impressive bunch. It may even be the best class of offensive linemen signing anywhere in the country.

“It’s as good as anyone’s really,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “Quinn did a fabulous job replacing a guy (Harry Hiestand) who also did a fabulous job which bodes well for Notre Dame’s future. All four of them are big-time athletes.”

Quinn convinced all four offensive linemen to commit to Notre Dame before the 2018 season. The commitments came in a two-month span from April to June following an offseason that celebrated Notre Dame’s offensive line play. The Irish won the Joe Moore Award as the top offensive line for the 2017 season, and left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey were both selected in the top nine picks of the 2018 NFL Draft.

The question left unanswered was if Quinn could carry on the Notre Dame offensive line legacy that Harry Hiestand, who left to become the Chicago Bears offensive line coach in January, had restored. But it wasn’t a question in the minds of the next wave of Irish offensive linemen.

“What really sold me was talking to the players and seeing how they enjoyed him so much and how he really brings to the table what Notre Dame needs as an offensive line coach,” Carroll said. “They all loved him. I felt really confident in choosing him as my offensive line coach.”

Carroll, a 6-6, 285-pound product of Edina (Minn.) High, owns the highest ranking of any of Notre Dame’s offensive line commits. Rivals ranks him No. 54 overall as the No. 7 offensive tackle in the class. 247Sports slates him as the No. 18 offensive tackle and No. 170 overall.

Carroll committed to Notre Dame over offers from Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and others. He appreciated the closeness of Notre Dame’s offensive line on and off the field.

“I got to hang out with those guys and they’re inseparable,” Carroll said. “They’re always together. No matter if you’re the starting left tackle or on the scout team, you’re all best friends. I can’t wait to be a part of that.”

The 6-5, 275-pound Kristofic may be the least-finished project in Notre Dame’s offensive line class. 247Sports slates Kristofic as the No. 15 offensive tackle and No. 116 overall in the class. Rivals ranks him as the No. 27 offensive tackle.

But the former teammate of Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec at Gibsonia (Pa.) Pine-Richland could also have the highest potential because of his athleticism. Kristofic has faith that Quinn can help him reach his ceiling.

“When you talk to coach Quinn, you can tell he’s a really good person,” Kristofic said. “Whenever he’s talking to you, he wishes nothing but the best for you and your family. He’s just a genuinely really good guy.

“You can tell football-wise, he’s really passionate about what he does and really loves what he does. He loves the whole process of helping coach and helping teach and building his players into good young men and great football players too.”

Notre Dame’s offensive line was named as one of 10 semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award this season despite losing left guard Alex Bars in the fifth week to a torn ACL and MCL. The unit had consistency issues, but it seemed to improve as the season went along and a new lineup formed.

“Any questions that still were up in the air about whether or not (Quinn) could be a great coach at this level were completely answered this year with how well they did,” Kristofic said. “I couldn’t be more excited about him being my future coach.”

The challenge for Quinn now will be to develop his talented offensive line recruits and keep replenishing his depth chart with more talent. In Hiestand’s first full recruiting cycle at Notre Dame, he signed five offensive linemen in the 2013 class with at least one four-star rating from either Rivals or 247Sports. But only McGlinchey and Steve Elmer turned into regular starters for the Irish while John Montelus, Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin never met their projections at Notre Dame.

Hiestand’s best recruiting class came the following year with three of the four signees turning into long-time starters and captains. Only Jimmy Byrne didn’t reach the heights of Nelson, Mustipher and Bars.

Quinn will have the rare opportunity to start working with all his offensive line recruits this spring. They individually decided that the head start was worth graduating early and skipping the end of their senior years.

“If you want to go play college football, you want to take all the extra help you can get,” Olmstead said. “Having that six months extra and to be able to play in the spring game, it just gets me more acclimated and I get to know the offense a lot better. There’s no downside to it. There are only advantages for me going early.”

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Olmstead took questions from a reporter immediately following a workout last week. The Metuchen (N.J.) St. Joseph product was still catching his breath when he started answering questions for a phone interview. Olmstead wants to be prepared for the strength and conditioning program at Notre Dame.

“I’m a hard worker,” Olmstead said. “I’m nasty on the field. You can’t teach that. That’s all in the heart.”

Rivals ranks Olmstead as the No. 16 offensive tackle and No. 111 overall. 247Sports slates him as the No. 34 offensive tackle.

Any debate on the best offensive line recruiting class for 2019 must include Notre Dame. LSU could argue for the top spot with three four-star recruits and one five-star recruit, per Rivals rankings. Georgia has one five-star offensive line commit and two four-star commits. Michigan, like Notre Dame, has four four-star offensive line commits, but the Wolverines also have two three-star offensive line commits.

The Irish offensive line class has heard the arguments.

“It doesn’t really mean much until you go out there and prove it,” Correll said. “We’ve all seen it. We all know that it’s out there and people think that. But your stars, once you get to college, they mean nothing.”

They have four or five years left to back up those projections.

“We believe it,” Olmstead said. “We don’t really talk about it. But when we play, we’ll show it.”

Notre Dame OL commits Quinn Carroll, left, and John Olmstead, right, arrive to the player walk before the Michigan at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (right) won’t have to wait long to coach four-star offensive line commit Zeke Correll (left). He plans to sign with the Irish on Wednesday and enroll in January.
Notre Dame offensive line commit Andrew Kristofic saw Notre Dame beat Stanford and Florida State in person at Notre Dame Stadium this season.

“I'm a hard worker. I'm nasty on the field. You can't teach that. That's all in the heart."

ND offensive tackle commit John Olmstead