Jarrett Patterson's return to center fuels Notre Dame O-line's evolution

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Jarrett Patterson prepares to snap the ball during Notre Dame football practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 at the Irish Athletics Center.

SOUTH BEND — Perhaps Jarrett Patterson’s most convoluted offseason adventure is how the Notre Dame senior and his offensive linemates ended up in cahoots with the manufacturer of “Dude Wipes” — a purported toilet paper adjunct/alternative.

His return to playing center — the position which he was mastering when he suffered a Lisfranc fracture of his left foot last November — isn’t all that less twisted. But it’s probably easier to share in mixed company.

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A projected left tackle in January and a possible guard as recently as June, the 6-foot-5. 307-pound newly minted team captain from Laguna Hills, Calif., couldn’t be happier with the way things ended up.  

“I told coach (offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees I’d do anything to help the team win.” Patterson said. “For me (center) was the best decision, because I’d been there the past two years. I’d been the leader up front, making the calls. So for me, I was happy to embrace it.”

And the progress that the four new O-line starters are making around Patterson eight days into training camp have Rees and the other Irish coaches embracing the decision that no move was the best move.

“I’ve been as pleased as I can be at how that group has gelled together,” Rees said of a line that is likely to include left tackle Blake Fisher, on a trajectory to become only the second Irish freshman offensive lineman in the 50 seasons since the NCAA restored freshman eligibility to start a season opener.

That’s not to say there can’t or won’t be hiccups or regression. But the offensive line is the third position group producing an abundance of pleasant surprises so far in August, joining the wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Collectively, those were the three position groups that needed to. Heading into training camp those were perceived to be the potential soft spots on an Irish team ranked seventh in the preseason coaches poll and likely to be similarly rated in the preseason AP poll that drops Monday at noon EDT.

“Getting Jarrett back is definitely huge, because he's such a great leader and he gets everyone on the same page when he's up there,” offered grad transfer QB Jack Coan, officially on Saturday named Notre Dame’s starter for the Sept. 5 opener at Florida State. “He's a great presence there.”

The NFL thinks so, too. ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates Patterson as the third-best center prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft, should Patterson turn down a fifth-year option to return to ND.

Patterson came to ND having never so much as dabbled at center. He was a three-star prospect, who had backed out of a pledge to Arizona State, then took a recruiting visit to and committed to Notre Dame when the Irish were between offensive line coaches.

“In visiting here, that family culture schools always preach, that’s what I felt here,” Patterson said. “And for me, deep down, I always felt this is the place I need to be at.”

Notre Dame senior Jarrett Patterson (55) is back playing center after two foot surgeries and the coaching staff considering moving him to other positions.

Patterson came in as a left tackle, and so impressed former ND offensive coordinator Chip Long as a freshman in 2018 that Long said he wouldn’t have hesitated putting Patterson in a game had starter Liam Eichenberg gone down.

The following spring the Irish had a vacancy at center, with multi-year starter Sam Mustipher heading to the Chicago Bears. Patterson was supposed to be a spring experiment, one of several options the Irish coaches would try.

Instead he became a staple almost instantly. He enters the 2021 season as a preseason All-American, per Athlon, Walter Camp, Pro Football Focus and Phil Steele.

His physical strength and knowledge of protections and fronts grew impressively during his 21 career starts that followed. In that 21st start, a 45-31 win at Boston College on Nov. 14, Patterson suffered the left foot injury that would require surgery in November and another operation in mid-March.

But not before he finished the BC game playing with the fracture.

“I probably went one (more) series, and they took me to the medical tent,” he said. “They noticed I was limping. They wrapped it up, put a splint on my big toe and they asked if I could do my job. 

“I just told them like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m good.’”

The Irish had a bye the following weekend before an ACC showdown at North Carolina. Patterson was initially convinced he’d be able to play against the Tar Heels with a little rest, but the X-rays said otherwise.

Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg, ND’s left guard and right tackle at the moment, filled in at center for the final two regular-season games, the ACC Championship Game and the College Football Playoff.

The postseason plan, once the Irish were eliminated by Alabama in the CFPlayoff semis on Jan. 1, was to move left guard Aaron Banks to left tackle in 2021 if he could be convinced to accept a fifth-year option.

Instead, he opted for the draft and was taken in the second round by the San Francisco 49ers, giving the Irish now nine offensive lineman taken in rounds 1-3 in the past eight drafts.

Once Banks decided to go, the coaching staff approached Patterson about the move to left tackle. But the second surgery — to remove hardware inserted during the first surgery to stabilize the break — meant he’d have no spring practice to reacclimate himself to tackle.

“Jarrett was coming off an injury,” Rees said. “There was going to be rust. And to come off an injury, have rust, move positions, that’s a lot to ask of a guy.”

The same logic applied to nixing a possible move to guard and leaving Correll as the starting center. Landing Marshall All-America guard Cain Madden in June lessened the allure to experiment with Patterson at the other guard.

“He's done so much for our program,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “Could we be better served if he played another position? You could make the case. But I think my feeling was we're a good football team with Jarrett Patterson at center, and it helps him in the long run playing that position.”

Fisher missed Thursday’s scrimmage while going through concussion protocol. Sophomore Michael Carmody stepped in at left tackle to team with Correll, Patterson, Madden and Lugg.

“We’re running the ball now at the level we expect to,” Rees said, “and want to continue to push them and work through the nuances of playing upfront together. And we see a lot of looks from coach Free (defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman) and his staff.

“They do a great job of being multiple frontwise and showing us different packages. That’s only going to help this young group grow and continue to get better.”

Together.

The group even takes its continuity and chemistry seriously off the field. Instead of forging individual name, image and likeness deals, the offensive line decided to navigate the new marketplace as a unit — including the walk-ons.

So now they’ve got barbecue, pizza and big-man shorts deals in addition to the one with Dude Wipes.

“A bunch of stuff just came out of nowhere,” Patterson said. “It’s been pretty cool. I mean, we get to eat free at Mission BBQ pretty much whenever we want.

“It wouldn’t make sense to do this as individuals. I think everything we do, we do together. Walk to the field together. Meetings together. Eating together. It’s just something really cool and special about the O-line here at Notre Dame.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI