Veteran Notre Dame offensive line will be challenged to meet elite expectations

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The disparity still doesn’t quite make sense.

By almost any measure, Notre Dame’s offensive line was one of the best pass-blocking units in the country last season.

Pro Football Focus gave the Irish the second-best pass-blocking grade in college football. The team finished No. 12 natiobally in sacks allowed with 1.23 per game. And only 13 of the 16 sacks allowed came against starting quarterback Ian Book.

Yet Notre Dame’s rushing production — particularly in losses at Georgia and Michigan — made the Irish offensive line seem closer to average than elite. In the two losses, the Irish combined for 45 rushes for only 93 yards. That average of 2.1 yards per carry was less than half the entire season’s average of 4.9 yards per carry.

But even Notre Dame’s average of 179.2 rushing yards per game ranked outside the top third in the country, at No. 45 in the FBS. Not exactly the production you’d expect behind an elite offensive live.

Elite is the standard Notre Dame fans have come to expect from the Irish offensive line, with three-fifths of the NFL’s All-Pro offensive line being recent Notre Dame products. With ND returning six offensive linemen who accounted for 59 of the 65 starts on the line last season, elite should be a reasonable expectation.

That means the most likely solution for improvement in run blocking won’t be new personnel. Instead, offensive line coach Jeff Quinn will be tasked with making the players he relied on last season even better. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and running game coordinator Lance Taylor must work together in their new roles with Quinn to maximize the production.

“That’s on us as coaches,” Rees said. “It starts with me and making sure that our plan is structured the right way and gives our guys a chance to be successful. It’s a commitment to running the football.”

Rees doesn’t take a great offensive line for granted, but it’s what he expects from a Notre Dame offense. He admits he may be a little spoiled by his experiences as a quarterback and quarterbacks coach with the Irish. As a senior in 2013, Rees was sacked only eight times. When building a passing game, he expects the pass protection to provide ample time.

Though the expectations are high, Rees wants to demand more.

“If anything, they’re going to get more push and a level of expectation put upon them to be great and to be nasty and to be tenacious and to win us football games,” Rees said. “To not just be OK with just getting by. There’s going to be an edge there that we’re going to establish up front, and we want to continue to push among those guys.”

A trio of starters entering their final year of NCAA eligibility will lead the charge to embrace that mentality. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer, both graduate students, and senior Robert Hainsey could all make arguments to be team captains. Combined they’ve started 77 games in their Notre Dame careers.

“You look at those three and you know you have some guys that have been through battles and have been in this program and understand the expectations and what it takes to win here,” Rees said. “They’ve been with (director of football performance) coach (Matt) Balis. They’ve been with (head) coach (Brian) Kelly.

“I have an excellent relationship with those guys. I’ve always gravitated toward the offensive linemen. There’s a level of security knowing that they represent what Notre Dame football’s about. We have a lot of guys offensively that do, but those three especially are guys we’re going to count on to help us win a lot of football games.”

Left guard Aaron Banks, a senior, and center Jarrett Patterson, a junior, are also returning as full-season starters. Banks could get pushed by fellow senior Josh Lugg, who started five games last season when Robert Hainsey went down with a broken ankle, if he doesn’t continue to develop. The only six starts not returning from last season came from Trevor Ruhland when he replaced Kraemer following his season-ending knee injury.

Lugg, who has taken practice reps at every position, could be the next man in all across the line if he doesn’t crack the starting lineup. The next wave of offensive linemen may have to wait another year to make significant contributions. But in order to keep the offensive line tradition going, Quinn will need to have them prepared as well. There’s no room for complacency.

“We’re good up front,” Rees said. “We’re going to make sure that we continue to be good up front and play to our strengths. Yeah, they’re established, but they’re going to be challenged as much as anyone, because the level of expectation that they need to hold themselves to is high.”

Notre Dame center Jarrett Patterson (left) and guard Aaron Banks (right) were part of an offensive line that protected quarterback Ian Book (middle) well in 2019, but needs to find more consistency in run blocking against top defenses.

LEFT TACKLE

74 Liam Eichenberg 6-6 305 Gr.
73 Andrew Kristofic 6-5 292 So.
79 Tosh Baker 6-7 275 Fr.

LEFT GUARD

69 Aaron Banks 6-6 335 Sr.
75 Josh Lugg 6-7 308 Sr.
71 John Olmstead 6-5 283 So.
70 Hunter Spears 6-4 304 So.

CENTER

55 Jarrett Patterson 6-5 300 Jr.
52 Zeke Correll 6-3 290 So.
61 Colin Grunhard 6-1 290 Sr.

RIGHT GUARD

78 Tommy Kraemer 6-6 317 Gr.
56 John Dirksen 6-5 306 Jr.
76 Dillan Gibbons 6-4 305 Sr.

RIGHT TACKLE

72 Robert Hainsey 6-5 295 Sr.
77 Quinn Carroll 6-7 306 So.
60 Cole Mabry 6-5 279 Jr.
68 Michael Carmody 6-6 285 Fr.