Defining season awaits Jeff Quinn and Notre Dame's offensive line as camp kicks off

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s more curiosity than crisis at the moment, more optics than overt.

But in a college football program in which offensive line play is so much a part of its identity, Notre Dame began training camp Wednesday with its five returning O-line starters and third-year position coach Jeff Quinn squarely in the spotlight.

And for all the right and wrong reasons, not all of which are based in reality.

The perception of Quinn, particularly as a developer of talent, is at the center of the chronic cyber-debate that kicked off when he was elevated from analyst to his current position after O-line coaching icon Harry Hiestand moved back to the NFL following the 2017 season.

It has percolated quietly for the 160 days since Notre Dame’s last formal practice, on March 5. That was the first of what were to be 15 spring practices until the COVID-10 pandemic started its rude rewrite of college football’s calendar and, ultimately, history.

As long as there’s a 2020 season for the Irish (11-2 in 2019), the coming weeks and months will more fairly and clearly define Quinn in his role.

Elite offensive guard prospect Rocco Spindler, for one, likes where that’s headed. On Saturday he cited Quinn’s developmental skills specifically as one of the reasons he chose to commit to the Irish over Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, LSU and others.

Former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman and first-round NFL Draft pick Aaron Taylor also weighed in recently. Taylor currently is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and co-founder of the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the nation’s top offensive line.

Heistand’s last Irish unit won the award in 2017.

“This is the year that I’ve had circled on my offensive line calendar to really watch what Jeff’s unit can do,” Taylor said. “I think they have a chance to be really special.

“I’ve seen spurts of it. I’ve seen series. I’ve seen games. But the consistency of start to finish that we saw with Harry’s offensive lines — particularly as of late, with two top frickin’ 9 (NFL Draft) picks in the first round — hasn’t been there.

“But honestly I think that has more to do with injuries than it has to do with (Quinn’s) coaching acumen or his ability to recruit talent on campus.

“I’m high on Jeff. And if he were a stock, I would invest heavily in him.”

Irish 11th-year head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t made available after Wednesday’s practice, which was closed to the media for health and safety reasons.

It was still a newsy day, even without Kelly’s post-practice voice.

Three players had their Irish football careers end after being designated as medical hardships, including one whose time on the ND football roster never included a single formal practice.

That would be running back Trevor Speights, a grad transfer from Stanford who enrolled at ND in June. Junior offensive lineman Cole Mabry and senior wide receiver Isaiah Robertson were the others.

Robertson, who came to ND as a safety, hadn’t played in a game for the Irish since 2018 and wasn’t on the roster in the spring because of academics. Mabry’s one career appearance came last season in a reserve role against New Mexico.

Both Speights and Mabry will remain on scholarship, though they won’t count against the NCAA maximum of 85 allowed.

Nine players who are on the current roster didn’t practice Wednesday because of COVID-19 concerns.

The university announced Wednesday afternoon that two of the 117 players tested on Monday came back with positive tests. One was mildly symptomatic and the other asymptomatic. Those players are now in isolation.

Through contact tracing, seven other players were designated to be quarantined. The 43 coaches, trainers and staff members who were tested Monday all had negative tests.

Including two players who tested positive and recovered earlier this summer, the Irish football program has a 99.35% negativity rate, according to the school.

The players who missed Wednesday’s practice were not identified.

The end of Mabry’s career, meanwhile, hurts more from an individual perspective than it will from a depth chart context.

The Irish have numbers in reserve. It’s just that most of them, beyond versatile super sub Josh Lugg, lack experience.

Two starters, as Taylor alluded, missed all or most of November with injuries. That’s senior right tackle Robert Hainsey and grad senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, They were tag-teamers at right tackle during the Joe Moore Award-winning 2017 season.

They’re joined in the starting lineup by junior center Jarrett Patterson, senior left guard Aaron Banks and grad senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, the latter the top pro prospect at the moment among them.

“Jeff has the opportunity to have one of the best offensive lines since Harry left and probably in the last 10 years if everybody can stay healthy,” Taylor said. “I don’t know Jeff extremely well, but I’m getting to know him, and what I know I really like.

“He and Harry are different coaches. They have similar standards, but slightly different approaches.”

The wild card is staff chemistry. Sources close to the team say that ousted offensive coordinator Chip Long and Quinn were rarely in sync, and that played out on the field on Saturdays.

Where that was most apparent was in the run game. Even with advanced metrics, qualifying elite offensive line play is more subjective than it is scientific. However, it’s interesting to note that Pro Football Focus rated the Irish offensive line No. 2 out of 130 FBS teams in pass blocking.

One indicator that its run blocking wasn’t anywhere close to that was ND’s No. 106 ranking in Football Outsiders’ power success rate. That’s defined by the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.

The Irish achieved that 62 percent of the time.

The hope and projection is that Quinn has a better working relationship with new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees as well as running backs coach Lance Taylor, elevated to run game coordinator in the winter.

“I expect Notre Dame to be quite a bit better running team this year than they were recently,” Taylor said. “Sometimes for offensive lines to get into a rhythm, you need to stick with the run game a little bit, break off some three-yards runs before you can pop one and start to open things up.

“But you also have to play complementary football, to throw enough to make sure people don’t load the box. I’m really encouraged about Jeff. It’s kind of like a head coach who gets a job and it takes 2-3 years to get settled before you can see what a guy’s capable of doing.”

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn works with his players during Notre Dame’s March 5 spring football practice. The Irish began August training camp on Wednesday.
Senior Aaron Banks (69) is one of five offensive line starters returning for Notre Dame in 2020.
Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn talks during the Lineman’s Challenge on June 15, 2019 at Notre Dame.

“I’m high on Jeff. And if he were a stock, I would invest heavily in him.”

Former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, on current Irish offensive line coach Jeff Quinn