Analysis: Can Notre Dame maintain its strong bottom line while continuing to reshuffle?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — At least Brian Kelly had a smile on his face Thursday as he broke down his latest contingency plan involving Notre Dame’s still-shuffling offensive line.

A unit that Pro Football Focus deemed on Thursday as the nation’s best could possibly have a third different alignment in as many games Saturday, when No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) closes its regular season at home against the ACC’s 15th-place team, Syracuse (1-9, 1-8).

And there likely would be a fourth configuration for ND’s Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game matchup against No. 3 Clemson (8-1, 7-1) or No. 10 Miami (7-1, 6-1).

Sophomore Zeke Correll’s gimpy ankle is of the most immediate concern. Correll made his first collegiate start last Friday in a 31-17 Irish victory at North Carolina, filling in for junior Jarrett Patterson, who’s out for the season with a foot injury.

Now Correll may need a fill-in. Or not.

Kelly said that the 6-foot-3, 288-pounder has been limited in practice all week and would be a gametime decision Saturday (2:30 p.m. EST; NBC).

If Correll can’t go, then 6-7, 310-pound senior Josh Lugg would be plugged in at that spot. Lugg filled in at right guard against North Carolina, stepping in for grad senior Tommy Kraemer who was out following an emergency appendectomy a week earlier during a bye week.

If Lugg moves to center, then senior Dillon Gibbons, normally a backup left guard, would start at right guard. If Correll can go, then Notre Dame would repeat its North Carolina lineup, with Lugg at right guard, and left guard Aaron Banks and tackles Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg in their normal roles.

Kelly said Kraemer has been practicing this week and is healthy enough to play Saturday, but the coaching staff decided to lean toward caution this week and plan to use him only on an emergency basis Saturday, with an eye toward a Dec. 19 return.

The Irish on Tuesday received an unexpected bye week next week when the ACC opted to delete ND’s Dec. 12 makeup game at Wake Forest along with a potential Clemson-Florida State COVID-related makeup game the same weekend.

And that gives Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn a chance to evaluate the center position for the longer term, as in ACC title game and either the College Football Playoff or the Orange Bowl.

Notre Dame’s depth chart at most positions is fairly linear. A player gets hurt, the guy listed as No. 2 moves up. Next man in.

With the offensive line, it’s a philosophy of trying to get your best five on the field regardless of position. So John Dirksen never really was Kraemer’s backup, as listed, and Colin Grunhard isn’t the next option beyond Correll at center.

That also means Kelly and Quinn will evaluate whether Lugg’s size and game experience at other positions (tackle and guard) trumps Correll’s mean streak and more practice reps at center.

PFF, which ranked every college offensive line from 1 to 127, based its evaluations largely on ND’s original lineup of Hainsey, Kraemer, Patterson, Banks and Eichenberg, but they graded Lugg and Correll from the North Carolina game as well.

“Not only does Notre Dame have the best offensive line of the 2020 college football season,” PFF’s Anthony Treash wrote, “but it also has one of the best offensive lines we have seen in the PFF College era (2014-present).”

North Carolina attacked and tested Lugg and Correll, both of whom took a while to settle in against the Tar Heels’ twists and stunts. Lugg ended up with a grade of 63.8. For comparison’s sake, Kraemer has a season grade of 79.3.

Correll, meanwhile, received a grade of 41.9. Patterson’s season average was 81.7 with a low of 61.7 in a 45-3 Irish win at Pitt on Oct. 24.

Saturday may or may not provide a glimpse of where all of this is headed.

“We’ll have plenty of time to do that at the bye week and figure out what’s our best five,” Kelly said of the Correll/Lugg competition. “And that’s a good luxury for us to have. I like those kinds of questions.”

Notable numbers

Among the other three teams currently in the College Football Playoff top four, along with Notre Dame, Alabama had the next-best offensive line per PFF at No. 9, with Ohio State 12th and Clemson 19th.

On Clemson, PFF had this to say: “Outside of tackles Jackson Carman and Jordan McFadden, Clemson’s run blocking has been disappointing. The interior offensive line ranks at a lowly 83rd in run-blocking grade among FBS teams.”

Notre Dame held Clemson to 34 rushing yards on 33 carries in its 47-40 double-overtime victory Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium.

• The Tigers’ O-line is still the best the Irish have faced this season, with Boston College (21st) a close second.

Georgia Tech at No. 123 of 127 is the worst ND has played against. Saturday’s opponent, Syracuse, has an O-line ranking of 113th.

• Beyond the Irish, the lines of BYU, Buffalo, Virginia Tech and Kentucky rounded out PFF’s top five.

Quintessential Quinn

Following iconic offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and the comparisons that come with that, was a necessary evil Jeff Quinn was willing to live with when he took the Irish O-line job following ND’s 2017 Joe Moore Award-winning season.

He took flak for being too much unlike Harry in style, but also for his familiarity with Kelly, with the two having worked together at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. “Cronyism” was one of the gentler interpretations of the move among the ND fan base and much of the media.

The 58-year-old Quinn, though, has consistently recruited at a high level. His first order of business was reeling in Jarrett Patterson from California in the 2018 class.

And in the class poised to sign in two weeks, Notre Dame will have two offensive linemen from the Rivals Top 100 (No. 25 Blake Fisher and No. 67 Rocco Spindler) in a single class for only the third time in the 20 years of Rivals rankings and the first time since Hiestand landed Quenton Nelson (No. 29) and Alex Bars (No. 98) seven cycles ago.

What Quinn has done in developing a line good enough to make another run at the Joe Moore Award is stay true to himself and his approach, yet embrace Hiestand’s ideals and build upon many of Hiestand’s concepts rather than rearranging and repurposing them.

Long before Quinn showed up at ND in 2015 as an offensive analyst and got to observe Hiestand and his success up close, he attended Hiestand’s clinics when the latter was in his first tour of duty as O-line coach for the Chicago Bears.

And Quinn worked at Hiestand’s camps when Hiestand was working at the University of Illinois in the same capacity.

“I knew what I was getting in Jeff, because I had such a long relationship with him,” Kelly said. “But you also have hindsight in the sense that I knew what I had in Harry and I knew what I was looking for in this next iteration of coaching the offensive line.

“And it was a different version of coaching at a high level.”

What Kelly feels he ended up with was a better version of Quinn than the one who’d been his offensive sidekick for so many years before Kelly took the ND head coaching job in December of 2009 and Quinn became Buffalo’s head coach for five seasons in the Mid-American Conference.

“Jeff builds relationships, just like Harry did, but in a different fashion,” Kelly said. “Coaches extremely well, but everybody teaches a little bit differently.

“I think what Jeff brings to the table that’s maybe a little bit different than when he was at Cincinnati with me, is that he was a head coach and got to see things from 30,000 feet, if you will.

“And how that applies on a day-to-day basis is understanding how important recruiting is and the player development and understanding clearly that we’re going to do things for the best interest of the entire group, not just for the individuals.”

O-line replacement parts Zeke Correll (52) and Josh Lugg (72) try to create space for a TD run for Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams last Friday at North Carolina.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly talks to offensive line coach Jeff Quinn during ND’s 45-24 romp over Stanford, Nov. 30, 2019, in Palo Alto, Calif.