Stage set for Jarrett Patterson and Notre Dame offensive line to prove if acclaim is deserved

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Brian Kelly put the standard of elite on Jarrett Patterson in September.

When the Notre Dame head coach was asked how much the Irish center’s improvement would impact the offensive line, Kelly didn’t hedge on his second-year starter.

“He feels so much more comfortable at the position,” Kelly said. “He’s not worrying about ‘Do I have to snap it?’ plus protections and who do I block? The natural progression in year two is one where you’re going to continue to see him evolve as one of the elite centers in the country.”

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Patterson made significant strides heading into his junior season and it’s been on display in the middle of Notre Dame’s offensive line.

Too many times last season Patterson would be overpowered by interior defensive linemen. As a former offensive tackle, Patterson had plenty of athleticism to play center but lacked the power required to consistently provide a push.

That’s no longer the case.

“He’s much more of a physical player this year than he was last year,” Kelly said. “He’s stronger. He’s put on weight. So much more confident in the position in which he plays now. Second year at that position, it has allowed him to do a lot more calling out fronts and establishing calls.

“There’s a level of confidence, and he’s built a physicality to him over the year here and certainly from last year from being in our strength and conditioning program.”

Patterson added only five pounds to his 2019 roster weight, but the strength gains have been obvious. Combine that with the confidence that comes from 19 consecutive starts on the offensive line and Patterson has become a much more complete version of himself.

“I’ve made substantial steps as far as just trusting the play being called and the guys next to me,” Patterson said. “The biggest improvements I’ve made are in the run game and getting vertical movement especially against three-down defenses. That’s what I think I’ve done the best this past season compared to the last.”

Against defensive schemes with three defensive lineman, Patterson is typically tasked with taking on a nose guard who’s lined up directly across from him. It puts more pressure on the center to complete the snap and be ready for contact immediately.

Against No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC), the No. 4 Irish (6-0, 5-0) are likely to see different combinations of three-man and four-man defensive lines. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables famously likes to mix up defensive looks especially on third down. That puts added responsibility on Patterson, who helps communicate the defensive line alignment and middle linebacker location to his fellow offensive linemen.

“They’re a really good and talented defense,” Patterson said. “A lot of different looks — three-down, four-down. They throw a lot of different pressures at you and come from all over the place. The biggest thing for us is going to be communication.

“Whoever is going to have the better technique that night is going to win the game, quite frankly, because it’s two good football teams going at it.”

Notre Dame’s offensive line should have a strong say in the outcome Saturday. The reestablishing of a dominant running game has allowed quarterback Ian Book to work through his deficiencies. The Irish entered the week ranked No. 11 in the FBS in rushing offense with 231 yards per game. Three of the teams ahead of Notre Dame have played only two or three games because of the staggered schedules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schematic changes — like the embracing of the outside zone — and the development of running back Kyren Williams have played a big role in the running game improvement. But it all starts with the offensive line execution.

“It’s something as a running back you dream of when you have an offensive line like the one we have,” Williams said, “where they’re moving the line of scrimmage every single run. When you believe that you can stay patient and you can tiptoe behind the line and still be able to get to the hole you need to go to, that’s when you know you have a good offensive line.”

The Irish have been particularly strong on third-and-short. Even against a Pittsburgh run defense that’s No. 1 in the country and limited the Irish to 44 yards on 26 designed runs, the Irish converted all four third-and-1 attempts on the ground in a 45-3 win.

Patterson credited offensive coordinator Tommy Rees for the improvement in third-and-short this season. It was emphasized by Rees soon after he took over the coordinator role and has become an important part of practice.

“He wants our standard for third-and-short to be 100% on the season. That’s what he said he wanted,” Patterson said. “During practice he brings the energy through our third-and-short situations or short-yardage and goal line. He really brings an energy.

“The backs and (running backs) coach (Lance) Taylor do a great job there in practice as well. All the units coming together, we’ve taken a ton of pride in keeping the drives moving and being able to run the ball right at you.”

Clemson has been strong against the run this season in allowing only 99.9 yards per game — good for No. 15 in FBS. But the Tigers will be without three starters in the front seven Saturday with linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr. and defensive tackle Tyler Davis injured. Starting defensive end Xavier Thomas will also miss the first half due to a targeting penalty called on him in the second half last week.

It sets up perfectly for Notre Dame’s offensive line to control the line of scrimmage on the big stage. Because if Patterson or the entire unit wants to be considered elite, these are the moments that matter.

“We want our final identity at the end of the season to be a very technical O-line that’s very assignment sound, and we’ll get it after it in the run game as a run-first team,” Patterson said. “That’s really what we want to be at the end of the day.”

Notre Dame center Jarrett Patterson, right, will reportedly miss the rest of the season with a foot injury. Patterson started the previous 21 games for the Irish.
Notre Dame’s Jarrett Patterson (55) and Aaron Banks (69) have helped the Irish improve on rushing success in short-yardage situations.