Josh Lugg finding identity as Notre Dame's starting right tackle

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Josh Lugg didn’t know how to answer the question.

When the 6-foot-7, 307-pound Notre Dame football player used to be asked what position he played, he would keep his answer vague. Instead of saying guard or tackle, he’d simply answer with offensive line.

But when pressed to name a specific position, he would answer with whatever he played in practice most recently while admitting it could be different the next time he went to practice.

“It was tough at first,” Lugg said. “It was just like, ‘What am I?’”

The identity crisis was understandable. In his first two seasons with the Irish, Lugg was a reserve offensive lineman looking for a home. He played guard and tackle as former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and current offensive line coach Jeff Quinn tried to find his best fit that aligned with Notre Dame’s needs.

Those needs were constantly changing. This past spring, Lugg added center to his repertoire. He was being prepared to handle the position in case Jarrett Patterson went down with an injury.

“I was excited for it,” Lugg said of trying center. “I told coach Quinn last year that all he needed to do was put me at center and I would have played all five positions in a game.

“When he comes to me in the spring and says, ‘We need you to play center,’ I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ I love trying new things. Especially if it can help my team out, I’ll do anything.”

Even now that Lugg found his way into the starting lineup at right tackle late in his junior season, Lugg still practiced a little bit at center in recent weeks.

“Just in case something were to happen,” Lugg said. “You just never know with football. It’s a 100-percent injury risk game.”

Injuries gave Lugg his opportunity this season in the first place. When starting right guard Tommy Kraemer went down in the Michigan game with an MCL sprain, graduate student Trevor Ruhland received playing time at the position ahead of Lugg. A week later, and days after head coach Brian Kelly said Lugg would play in a bit of a rotation with Ruhland at right guard, starting right tackle Robert Hainsey left the Virginia Tech game with a broken ankle. That put Lugg into the lineup at right tackle.

That Ruhland and Lugg would end up playing next to each other seemed fitting.

“We were the two next-man-ins for the longest time,” Lugg said. “We also had a bond over that. We always had to be ready, but we never really got the snaps on Saturday. Now it’s our turn, and we have to honor Rob and Tom when we’re out there.”

Lugg and Ruhland did right by Hainsey and Kraemer in not letting Notre Dame’s offensive production slip in their absence. The offense found quite a bit of success in the four games to close out the regular season in which Lugg and Ruhland both started.

In the final four games, CFP No. 15 Notre Dame (10-2) rushed for 208.8 yards per game with 5.42 yards per carry, scored 43.8 points per game and allowed just three sacks. In the first eight games of the season, Notre Dame rushed for 160.5 yards per game with 4.55 yards per carry, scored 33.8 points per game and allowed 11 sacks.

Certainly, the defenses Notre Dame played in the final four games against Duke, Navy, Boston College and Stanford weren’t exactly imposing. None came close to matching the quality of defense the Irish played in Georgia and Michigan. But only Boston College was a truly poor defense at the level of New Mexico and Bowling Green, which Notre Dame torched, among its first eight opponents.

The first four starts of Lugg’s career felt like a long time coming.

“While I’m in it, every week was just like, ‘Maybe this week, maybe this week.’ I always had to have that attitude going into every week, especially last year,” Lugg said. “At any point, I had to be called upon. When it’s like that, the season goes long, the years go long.

“But I’m here now and I’m reminiscing, I felt like yesterday I was with Harry Hiestand in his office on day one.”

Back then, a freshman Lugg was bugging Ruhland. With Lugg playing left guard and Ruhland playing center, Lugg had endless questions about the playbook and his assignments. Now they’re working together and on the same page.

Lugg has plenty of room left for improvement. In each of his four starts, he’s been called for one false start penalty. But he feels the game slowing down for him between plays. He’s finally able to put all his studying to use.

“It’s being able to reset, refocus, see their defense, they move and being able to understand who I’m blocking again,” Lugg said. “If (quarterback Ian) Book makes a check, taking that and understanding what I need to do so I’m not making missed assignments out there. That’s the biggest part.

“Once it’s snapped, it’s football. That’s like high school, college, NFL. It’s just football. You have to play your heart out.”

Lugg likely has only one more start guaranteed ahead of him. The Irish will find out their bowl destination on Sunday after the final College Football Playoff rankings are released on ESPN with the selection show running from 12-4 p.m. EST. Florida Citrus Sports anticipates announcing both the Citrus Bowl and Camping World Bowl at 3:30 p.m. EST.

After the bowl game, Lugg will be back fighting for a starting spot as all five original starters this season can return. He could be pushing for playing time at any position.

When asked if playing tackle is his preference, Lugg responded with “Yeah, sure.”

The position no longer matters. It’s just the opportunity to play that Lugg’s trying to embrace.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity,” Lugg said. “It’s unfortunate that Rob and Tom went down, but coach Quinn talks about the next man in, so I have to always be ready. Semper paratus.”

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Notre Dame’s Josh Lugg blocks New Mexico’s Alexander “Moana” Vainikolo (30) late in the 66-14 Irish victory. Lugg started the last four games at right tackle for Notre Dame.