'Little Joe Alt' just keeps growing into Notre Dame's All-America left tackle

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Joe Alt, classic late bloomer, just keeps growing.

Considering Notre Dame’s newly minted All-America left tackle is only a 19-year-old sophomore, that’s a scary proposition for already overmatched opponents. Back home in Minnesota over the summer, Alt measured at 6 feet, 8 and 3/8 inches.

That was three quarters of an inch taller than his official height on the Irish roster.  

“That’s about where I maxed out when I was 21,” his father, former NFL Pro Bowl left tackle John Alt, said in a recent phone interview. “I was just under 6-8 ½. I grew up until that point, and I’ve been shrinking here lately. I think he’s got more in him. I really do.”

Set to make his 21st straight start against No. 19 South Carolina in Friday’s Gator Bowl, Joe Alt has quickly outpaced his famous father at the college level.

“I would definitely say he’s way ahead of me,” John Alt said. “He’s taken on a lot of my frame. He’s definitely got a bigger lower end than I had, which is great for run blocking and great for playing football.”

l-r, Former NFL left tackle John Alt and youngest son Joe. The elder Alt was an assistant line coach at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., where Joe played tight end and linebacker on his way to a Notre Dame scholarship.

John Alt, 60, played tight end his first two years at Iowa before growing into the man-mountain who would be selected 21st overall in the 1984 NFL Draft.

Alt spent the next 13 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he counted a pair of Notre Dame national champions — Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana (1977) and center Tim Grunhard (1988) — among his closest friends and teammates.

Joe Alt wore Montana’s No. 16 while playing quarterback in youth football up through his freshman year at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn. He moved to linebacker as a sophomore and tight end his final two seasons.

Those experiences were by design.

“I just thought (it helped) to get a feel for the game, to know the whole game, to have some fun while he was young,” said John Alt, who was an assistant at Totino-Grace. “He had the athleticism to do it, but in the back of our minds — or really the front of our minds — we knew he was going to have his hand down (eventually), and that’s where he would be the most successful in college.”

Grunhard remembers his sons CJ and Colin (a former Notre Dame center) playing with “Little Joe” on family visits to the Alts’ cabin near the Chiefs’ old training camp in western Wisconsin. While attending several events with his old teammates in early 2020 at the Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl in Miami, Grunhard marveled at the 6-6 beanpole who was fresh off a six-inch growth spurt the previous summer.

Notre Dame All-America left tackle Joe Alt (16) sprouted 6 inches in the summer before his junior year at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn.

“I just couldn’t believe how big the kid was,” said Grunhard, a former center who joins Alt in the Chiefs Ring of Honor. “A cool thing about Notre Dame is a lot of times the guys that aren’t the highly recruited guys end up being some of the best players.”

Joe Alt, a first-team Associated Press All-America and a second-team selection for several other organizations, was a three-star recruit in the 2021 signing class. Then 6-7 and 283 pounds, Alt was rated 21st among offensive tackles (247Sports) and only the fifth-best prospect in Minnesota (ESPN).

“Joe was one of the last-minute add-ons,” Grunhard said. “When he showed up on campus, nobody expected much from him. People thought he was too skinny. People thought he didn’t have enough lead in his a-- to play. When he got out there and played, I was just so happy for him.”

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'Extremely good'

Irish defensive end Isaiah Foskey nodded and smiled upon hearing the question about his fellow All-American.

How good is Alt?

“He’s really good,” Foskey said. “Like, extremely good.”

Few tackles could match Foskey’s quickness and wiles as he powered his way to Notre Dame’s career sacks record, but Alt was a worthy sparring partner.

“That’s why I always try to line up against him," Foskey said, "when it’s good-on-good or 1s on 1s."

Because it’s hard to beat him?

“It is,” Foskey said. “You know it is. It’s a good challenge.”

Asked what separates Alt from the pack, Foskey ticked off the attributes of the 313-pounder.

“He’s really patient with his hands,” Foskey said. “He knows how to punch with his hands. Very violent with his hands. Great footwork. He’s a hard worker in run blocking. I can’t really knock anything (about) him. There’s nothing negative to say about him. He’s just all around a perfect left tackle.”

Working against Foskey in practice no doubt helped Alt lift his game. So did having Jarrett Patterson in close proximity after offensive line guru Harry Hiestand moved the senior captain from center to left guard just before training camp.

“I don’t want to say, ‘I keep an eye on him,’ “ said Patterson, a four-year starter. “He’s pretty mature for how young he is. He takes care of himself very well. I trust him to do what he needs to do.”

Opponents began to scheme away from the left side of the Irish line once it became clear how solid it was. Patterson, named a second-team All-America by the AFCA, combined with Alt to thwart even the stoutest of pass rushers.

“Just picking up pressure and blitzes,” Patterson said, “I think once teams saw how well we work on combo blocks, you’re not getting many opportunities for those.”

''... That’s how you make your bacon is protecting the quarterback.”  

Joe Alt's father John, a former NFL Pro Bowl left tackle

According to Pro Football Focus, Alt and Patterson allowed zero sacks and just 12 combined pressures in 683 combined pass sets.

“I’ve always told Joe that pass blocking is No. 1 and run blocking is No. 2,” John Alt said. “That’s the way I approached it myself. I’ve had a lot of different offensive line coaches. That’s how you make your bacon is protecting the quarterback.”  

As Patterson heads to the NFL after the Gator Bowl, he knows Alt won’t be too far behind him. What does Alt need to hone?

“He’ll say the same thing — it’s just consistency in his pass set and his punch,” Patterson said. “That’s something he’s really worked on in the past year. It’s something he’s really improved on. Every day he spends 20-30 minutes before meetings doing it and after practice as well. He’ll get it down – 100%.  I know he will.”

First-second victories

Problem-solving comes naturally to Alt, a mechanical engineering major who carries a 3.25 GPA. He sees a carryover from the way he processes things on the academic side to his more public exploits.

“On the football field, it’s more in-game,” Alt said. “You can break down film and you’re going to know the general thing, but every defense is going to game plan differently. It’s seeing it on the field, watching it, and then when you come to the sideline, being able to hash it out with the guys and figure out what’s the best thing to do.”

Working with Hiestand, a technician’s technician who was brought back in January for a second tour of duty at Notre Dame, propelled Alt from good to great when it came to the finer points of the position. First-step precision became a daily focus as Irish linemen were taught how to “win that first second” after the ball is snapped.

“If you get in the right spot in those first seconds, your percentages of winning the block or doing your job are so much better,” Alt said. “When coach Hiestand came here, I remember one of the first meetings we had, we broke down and he goes, ‘You know, this is something we’ve got to work on.’ I had never really looked at it that close, like, ‘Oh, this foot means this much.’ ”

John Alt, for all his achievements, has made it a point to keep his distance and allow his youngest son to be coached at the college level. Father and son talk through the game each week, and John breaks down tape at home and shares feedback along with a numerical grade.

Who’s the tougher grader, Hiestand or the elder Alt?

“I would say definitely we’re harder in here,” Joe Alt said. “That’s a good thing. You never want to be complacent. You never want to be satisfied. I love hard coaching. I love it. Keep getting better each day and keep striving for a higher goal.”

Until Notre Dame’s team awards dinner on Dec. 16, John Alt had never spoken with Hiestand. They have several mutual friends, including Grunhard and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was Alt’s line coach with the Hawkeyes, and “a lot in common with how we approach the game.”

Alt, who said it’s “very fortunate it lined up the way it did,” planned to thank his son’s esteemed tutor.

“I’ve always believed 80 percent of the game is above the shoulder pads,” John Alt said. “I think that’s where he’s made the biggest leap. He is much different this year, not in how he approaches it, but how he deals with the events of the game. Everybody has their bodies in pretty good shape at this point in their lives. It’s what you do up in your brain.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) vs. No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) 

What: 78th Annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl 

When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST 

Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164), Jacksonville, Fla. 

TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 

Line: Notre Dame opens as a 4.5 -point favorite  

Series: Notre Dame leads 3-1 

Last meeting: South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend (1984).