How Joe Alt transformed from high school tight end to Notre Dame's starting left tackle
The Totino-Grace coaching staff didn’t have to worry about which number Joe Alt was wearing for Notre Dame on Saturday night.
The former star football player at the high school in Fridley, Minn., was no longer switching numbers from No. 45 to No. 76 depending on if he lined up for the Irish as a tight end or offensive tackle, respectively. On Saturday night at Virginia Tech, Alt made his debut as Notre Dame’s starting left tackle.
“I did not know he was going to start,” said Totino-Grace head coach Jay Anderson. “I know he had been getting playing time. I turned on the game and there he was at left tackle. That was the first time I knew about it when the game started.”
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By tuning in on time, Anderson witnessed Alt’s worst moment of the game. On the third play, Virginia Tech defensive end Amaré Barno beat the freshman Alt with a spin move to sack quarterback Jack Coan.
“That’s going to happen at left tackle,” Anderson said. “You’re going against some of the best on that side. In the back of my head I said, ‘OK, Joe’s going to get the book on this kid now and he’s going to be fine.’”
The 6-foot-8, 306-pound Alt recovered to provide a steady presence at a position that’s featured four different starters through six games. The entire offensive line settled in after allowing a second sack of Coan to end Notre Dame’s third drive in the first quarter. No. 14 Notre Dame (5-1) wasn’t tackled for a loss on a running or passing play for the rest of the game.
In addition to Alt playing all four quarters of the 32-29 victory, junior Andrew Kristofic (6-5, 305) replaced starting left guard Zeke Correll (6-3, 295) after two drives. The renovated offensive line put together its best performance of the season. In allowing only two negative plays against Virginia Tech, the Irish bested their season-low of seven against Purdue and Cincinnati. Notre Dame’s season-high 180 rushing yards surpassed the previous high of 132 against Toledo.
“Alt helps us a lot,” Kelly said. “He makes a big difference. Kristofic played virtually the whole game. ... We got bigger. Alt’s 306 and Kristofic’s 305. We're bigger, more physical. And that’s where we go.”
The fact that Alt can play any role at all in a possible improvement of Notre Dame’s offensive line speaks to his incredible personal transformation from playing mostly tight end his last two years at Totino-Grace. Position changes aren’t new for Alt. He started his high school career as a freshman quarterback before moving to linebacker as a sophomore and tight end as a junior.
Notre Dame offered Alt as an offensive line prospect after playing his junior season around 240 pounds. By the time he committed to the Irish in July 2020, he was nearing 260 pounds. By the end of last year, Alt signed with Notre Dame weighing nearly 280 pounds.
At Totino-Grace, Alt’s tight end role required a lot of blocking. According to offensive line coach Tom Rooker, the tight ends would spend the first third of practices working with the offensive line. Then when the tight ends would join the quarterbacks for passing drills, Alt made sure to take reps at offensive tackle in pass protection as well.
When Totino-Grace's starting left tackle was injured, Alt switched jerseys mid-game to play left tackle. It coincidentally became practice for something he would be asked to do as a freshman at Notre Dame.
“As a senior, whether it was tight end or left tackle, he was a man among boys with his work ethic and finishing plays,” Rooker said. “I know it’s a significant jump, but none of this is a surprise to me.”
Opposing defenses would try to find ways to disrupt Alt’s ability to block even if it meant a defender would disregard any gap responsibilities.
“They would put their best defensive end over him,” Rooker said. “That guy was kind of displaced from the game plan. He was just trying to hold up and win a stalemate against him. You’re taking the guy out of the scheme of tackling. They’re just trying to hold up. Joe was still successful the vast majority of the time.”
Pass protection should have been the area Alt struggled the most. It’s a more unnatural movement compared to run blocking. But Alt had the help of his father, John, to help develop his technique.
John Alt knew a little bit about transitioning from tight end to offensive tackle too. Before playing 13 years as an offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs, John Alt spent his first two college seasons at Iowa playing tight end. Following the position switch at Iowa, John Alt developed into a first-round NFL Draft pick for the Chiefs in 1984. He was selected to play in the Pro Bowl twice (1992 and 1993) and was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame.
John Alt helped Rooker coach Totino-Grace's offensive line and was stickler for blocking details.
“He would write down the notes, ‘Hey your hand needs to go here,’” Rooker said. “John’s just an awesome person and coach. He wasn’t just there for Joe. He coached every kid like he was his own. A great resource, person and coach in our program.”
“I told our guys, ‘You better be a sponge if he’s telling you something. If he’s talking to one tackle, every tackle better be listening.’”
That allowed Joe Alt to take advantage of his athleticism as a pass blocker.
“A lot of times in pass pro it’s your feet,” Anderson said. “It’s your positioning and understanding. His dad helped out a lot with that. So much knowledge on pass pro. He was getting schooled by his father, no matter what, in pass pro all the time.
“That really helped us and really helped him start to develop. That willingness to look at those little details and understand the little details in body position and hand placement. Joe’s so diligent in what he does. He listens. He learns. He works hard at it. That’s where he got all of that from.”
Notre Dame’s reaping the benefits of that now. In August, Kelly described Alt as a surprise with his strength showing in his first practices with the Irish. By the third game of the season against Purdue, Notre Dame started using Alt as an extra tight end and gave him the No. 45 jersey to wear in such instances. He came off the bench the following week against Wisconsin to play left tackle for the first time.
Just last week, Kelly expressed a wish that Alt would reach his potential “tomorrow” knowing that would be asking a lot of him. Days later, Alt became the second freshman to start at left tackle for the Irish this season.
Fellow freshman Blake Fisher opened the season at the position, but he was knocked out of the Florida State game with a knee injury that may have ended his season. Sophomores Michael Carmody (ankle) and Tosh Baker (concussion), who also started games at left tackle, have struggled to stay healthy and play consistently when in the lineup.
“(Alt) has size. He has a skill set. He looks like a tackle. He acts like a tackle. He has all those things,” Kelly said. “But I just love the way he does his job. He's unflappable. He goes out there. We play him at tight end, change your jersey, put another number on. It doesn't affect him. He goes in and does his job.
“Is he perfect? Absolutely not. But having said that, there's a physicality to him that he brings that we really like that we feel like we need at that position.”
Both Anderson and Rooker believed Alt would redshirt as a freshman at Notre Dame, because that’s what most offensive linemen do. But that doesn’t mean they’re surprised to see how quickly he’s progressed.
“I was really happy when he was in at tight end,” Anderson said. “They were giving him some looks there in some running situations. When I watched him on film, I’m like, ‘He’s really not outmatched right now.’
“When I saw that he wasn’t outmatched and I knew what kind of a kid he is and how smart he is, I thought he would have a chance to make a good impression. But then when he got an opportunity to start, it didn’t necessarily surprise me just knowing who he is and how hard he works.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.