Departing Notre Dame offensive linemen confident their replacements will maintain high standard
Brian Kelly might not make it through any press conferences before the 2021 season opener against Florida State without a question about Notre Dame’s offensive line.
That’s the product of the Irish losing four multi-year starters up front. The same questions being asked of Notre Dame’s head coach are being sorted through on the practice field this spring.
“We’re giving everybody a look at an opportunity at different positions, and there are very competitive opportunities for each position,” Kelly said Saturday following the fourth spring practice. “I mean that for all of them. I could probably give you 10 guys right now of 13 guys in total that are all kind of competing for different positions.”
Even Notre Dame’s most experienced offensive lineman, Jarrett Patterson, will be trying a new position. Patterson, who started 21 games at center the past two seasons, will have a chance to become the next great left tackle for Kelly at Notre Dame. But Patterson’s switch to left tackle, where he initially was positioned as a freshman reserve, will have to wait until he’s completely recovered from a surgery on his left foot that ended his 2020 season.
Outland Trophy finalist Liam Eichenberg, who started the last 38 games at left tackle for Notre Dame, thinks the transition will be easy for the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Patterson.
“Football comes natural to him,” Eichenberg said. “First camp as a freshman, he was a left tackle behind me and he was amazing. It’ll be like nothing ever happened. I don’t expect there to be a drop-off at all.
“It’ll be like I’m still there. It’ll be like Mike (McGlinchey) was still there. Jarrett will be one of the next greats. He’s a great center and him moving out to tackle, it’ll make people realize that he’s even a better player than most people think.”
That’s promising praise for Patterson. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn’s comfort level with moving Patterson to left tackle was also predicated on the success junior-to-be Zeke Correll had while playing center when Patterson was injured at the end of last season. The 6-3, 295-pound Correll started two games and can be penciled in as the starting center for 2021.
Correll doesn’t have as much playing experience as graduate senior Josh Lugg, who also started two games at center last season. The 6-7, 310-pound Lugg has been an all-purpose substitute for the last two seasons with eight total starts at center, guard and tackle. Lugg opened the spring playing right tackle, but Kelly indicated he would likely move inside to guard in the fall.
“This is his opportunity now,” Eichenberg said. “He will start on the offensive line this year, there’s no doubt about that. And I think he’s going to do very well. He’ll be very successful. He’s a guy who understands his technique and fundamentals, and I’m very excited for him.
“I’m excited for all the guys in our room, but a guy who stuck it out, who would do anything and sacrifice anything for the offensive line, that’s the type of guy you’re getting.”
Veterans Dillan Gibbons, a grad senior, and John Dirksen, a senior, may have the early edge on winning a starting guard spot. The 6-4, 309-pound Gibbons may be the favorite after playing significant snaps at left guard against Florida State and starting at right guard against Syracuse last season. Dirksen (6-5, 306) hasn’t cracked the starting lineup in three seasons.
“Those guys are two awesome football players,” said former Irish offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer. “They’re tough, gritty, physical. They can definitely do it. I think the Notre Dame offensive line will be getting two mature players in John and Dillan — guys who care a lot about the program and care about improving in their craft.”
Most of the younger returning players are being given chances at multiple positions. Junior Andrew Kristofic and sophomore Michael Carmody are competing at center and guard. Junior Quinn Carroll is getting looks at guard and tackle. But sophomore Tosh Baker might be the one with the brightest future at tackle. He’s been receiving starting left tackle reps this spring with Patterson out, which could lead to him flipping over to right tackle when Patterson returns.
Will the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Baker be physically ready for a starting role?
“He moves well,” Eichenberg said. “He’s good with his hands. He understands the playbook. It’s just going to be developing his overall strength and when he gets that, I think he will be a great player for Notre Dame football.”
Early enrolled freshman Blake Fisher, rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals, has managed to earn some first-team reps at left tackle as well. Even though Kelly slipped and called him Blake Griffin, the 6-6, 330-pound Fisher has made a strong first impression.
“That’s an interesting one, right?” Kelly said. “Those two guys kind of battling it out.”
Fisher was joined by guard Rocco Spindler and tackle Caleb Johnson as early enrollees. They’re all hoping to take advantage of the head start that previously allowed Robert Hainsey to land a timeshare his freshman year with Kraemer at right tackle in 2017.
“It’s different than high school,” Hainsey said. “You have to get it together. You have to understand who you are and what’s important. It’s not who’s important. It’s the unit and it’s the team.
“Some guys don’t always know that, but once you get here and are able to learn what it’s about and adapt to the offensive line culture, you’re going to do great things.”
Though Eichenberg, Hainsey, Kraemer and Aaron Banks are gone from last year’s offensive line, they’ll keep in touch with the guys left working to replace them. Maybe more than any other position group in Notre Dame’s program, the offensive line is invested in keeping its strong tradition alive.
As those four spoke to reporters ahead of their pro day workouts last week, they each mentioned former Notre Dame offensive linemen they’ve reached out to for guidance in the pre-draft process. They’re ready to be mentors as well for the next starting unit.
“I’m really excited to watch all those guys get their opportunity, because there’s a lot of great players in that room,” Hainsey said. “It’s going to be fun to watch them battle it out for who’s going to play. Honestly the competition’s going to bring the best out of everyone, so I’m excited to watch throughout this spring and see how it shakes out in the fall.”