Notre Dame freshmen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher forge ahead of the (growth) curve

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Amid trying to secure a free agent landing spot this spring for a 12th NFL season and navigating the terrible twos with his daughter, Sam Young still had the time and ambition to be able to glean more than a passing awareness of who Rocco Spindler was.

And who he was supposed to become.

The 33-year-old Young is the last offensive lineman from Notre Dame to start a season opener as a freshman — in 2006 against blitz-happy Georgia Tech, no less — for an Irish team that began the season No. 2 in the AP poll.

Spindler may be the next, Sept. 5 at Florida State. And he might not be alone in that distinction.

It’s not as if Irish head coach Brian Kelly came out and declared that midyear enrollee offensive guard Spindler and freshman five-star left tackle sidekick Blake Fisher as definite starters, Saturday after practice No. 10 of 15 this spring.

But Kelly had every opportunity to explain away the pair’s working as the No. 1 left side through the most recent practices as something experimental or out of context. Instead he validated their progress and even suggested that last year’s starting center and presumptive 2021 starting left tackle as recently as a week ago, injured senior Jarrett Patterson, could end up as a guard five months from now.

It’s all in the name of putting the best five O-linemen on the field regardless of past positional experience and then retro-fitting them to positions.

“Wow, just wow,” said Young, who has watched eventual Notre Dame first-round draft choices Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson all incubate as freshman offensive linemen, since exhausting his eligibility in 2009.

“For those two freshmen to even be in a position that it’s a possibility that they’d start is impressive,” he continued. “Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t expect to do anything but compete from day one. Obviously, these guys are doing a fantastic job, but it’s a steep learning curve coming from high school.

“Guys are bigger, stronger, faster. The game’s a lot more complicated at the college level. But high schools are getting more sophisticated in terms of watching film and prepping. So it’s probably an easier transition than I had.

“Going into that first game, the guys were giving me a hard time in the locker room. I was so anxious/excited that I probably had my helmet on three hours before the game, ready to go.”

Young was a five-star prospect, played at a perennial national prep powerhouse (St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and against competition at the high school level that’s as good as there is in the country.

“All that helped, but it didn’t do away with the learning curve,” Young said. “I remember coming in and John Latina was offensive line coach, and he was talking about Sam, Mike and Will. And I’m like, ‘Who are those guys?'

“Meanwhile, that’s the terminology for the linebackers. Then I was preoccupied with just remembering the snap count.

“But I was really fortunate for the home and away trips to be rooming with Ryan Harris. He was a tremendous mentor and kind of showed me the way, whether it was preparation or X’s and O’s or just being a guy in college and learning how to balance all the different demands on your time that Notre Dame forces you to make.

“If I had to point to a person who influenced me and helped me along in that respect, it was definitely him.”

There is so much time and so many able challengers to fend off between now and the Labor Day Sunday opener. But if the story line holds, grad senior Josh Lugg (6-7, 310), Patterson (6-5, 305) and junior Zeke Correll (6-3, 295) would join the massive prodigies, Fisher (6-6, 330) and Spindler (6-5, 315).

ABOVE: Freshman Blake Fisher is taking reps at left tackle with the No. 1 Notre Dame offense this spring. LEFT: Notre Dame freshman offensive guard Rocco Spindler (50) chats with former Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg during Saturday’s ND spring football practice.

And to be clear, the congealing narrative is not about two freshmen defaulting to the top of the depth chart because of lack of talent and/or depth around them.

“Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher are damn good,” offered No. 1 nose guard Kurt Hinish. “They’re really good offensive linemen, and they’re going to be really good here. They’re the best two freshman offensive linemen I’ve ever seen or went against.”

“They’re young kids who came in and are just maturing and know how to work,” added grad senior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, working at defensive end this season after four years of playing on the interior.

“They don’t complain. They just put their heads down and get to work. That's the type of people we want here at Notre Dame.”

Both came with high pedigree. Spindler, from Clarkston, Mich., was ranked by Rivals as the No. 67 prospect nationally regardless of position in the 2021 class. There have been just seven Irish offensive line recruits rated higher in the 20 completed cycles in the Rivals Era: Tommy Kraemer (No. 41 in 2016), Nelson (No. 29 in 2014), Steve Elmer (No. 60 in 2013), Trevor Robinson (No. 37 in 2008), Matt Romine (No. 55 in 2007), Young (No. 11 in 2006) and Fisher (No. 25 in 2021) out of Avon (Ind.) High.

“They should be in high school,” Lugg said of Fisher and Spindler. “They should have prom next weekend. And instead they’re blocking Kurt Hinish in a scrimmage (Saturday). I think that’s pretty cool.”

Kelly, meanwhile, thinks it’s pretty cool that his biggest unresolved headache on a Joe Moore Award finalist unit that lost four starters is now figuring out who Correll’s backup at center is going to be.

He’s also impressed at the way all 14 midyears have acclimated to conditions that are not yet normal.

"Guys that come in from high school and have to adapt through COVID and academics and weight training and then come out here and compete,” Kelly said. “In some instances that has surprised me that they can do it at a high level.

“I would say that that is quite an achievement for kids of that age to be able to come in here in a championship program — a team that's played in the playoffs two out of the last three years — to make that kind of impact.

“I think it says a lot about the individual.”

And the culture to which they’re honoring and following.

“I think when you have an early enrollee come in, what you want to see from them is that they’re automatically going to follow the standard,” Lugg said. “They're going to pick up the tradition.

“They're going to understand what this offensive line is about. And they’ve surpassed that. Even (fellow midyear enrollee) Caleb Johnson, when they came in, they understood that the tradition never graduates.

“Even though we lost the upperclassmen, the standard is the standard, and there’s nothing less.”

Notre Dame freshman offensive guard Rocco Spindler (50) chats with former Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg during Saturday's ND spring football practice.