Joe Rudolph takes charge of proud Notre Dame football offensive line tradition

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

“Not gonna play that high today!” — Joe Rudolph

SOUTH BEND — Six words.

That’s all it took for Joe Rudolph, Notre Dame’s new offensive line coach, to remind his talented young group about the importance of playing with proper pad level.

Preceded by Rudolph’s urgent whistle and delivered in his Western Pennsylvania rasp and punctuated with a quick demonstration by the former Wisconsin Badgers lineman and line-play guru, those six words cut through the din of piped-in rap music one rainy Saturday at a recent spring practice.  

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Watching Rudolph run position drills this spring at Notre Dame, former six-year Irish lineman Josh Lugg sometimes can’t help but smile.

Anyone who worried about a potential drop-off up front after the surprise re-retirement of Harry Hiestand should take solace in what has unfolded behind closed doors this spring.

“The guys are in great hands,” Lugg said recently. “The biggest thing is Coach Rudolph is going to demand the same standards that Coach Hiestand did. We’re not going to have any dip at all.”

Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph supervises drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

And if there is even a moment of slippage?

“I know Coach Rudolph is going to be on it and say, ‘Hey! No, no, we do things together, we move together,’ “ Lugg said. “They’re going to be held to the highest standard.”

Replacing both starting guards won’t be easy, especially with Lugg and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson departing with a combined 79 career starts at multiple line spots. That transition was obvious when the revamped Irish defensive line got the better of things, at least on passing downs, during the open practice on April 1.

Yet former starter Andrew Kristofic and redshirt freshman Billy Schrauth, the frontrunners this spring and right and left guard, respectively, have the benefit of returning starter Zeke Correll directing traffic at center. That trio moved the pile sufficiently during inside-run calls on the goal line.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Josh Lugg (75) and offensive lineman Andrew Kristofic (73) celebrate after their win against Syracuse after an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Bookend tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, both projected as high NFL draft picks as soon as 2024, should keep things tidy on the perimeter this fall.

Rudolph, hired away from Virginia Tech after one year in Blacksburg, has been tasked with making sure Hiestand’s one-year reset wasn’t for naught.

“Coach (Marcus) Freeman talks about this being an ‘O-line driven program,’ “ Lugg said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘O-line coach driven.’ It’s O-line player driven. Coach Rudolph doesn’t want to let Notre Dame down. He wants to hold those standards to the highest level because what Coach Hiestand established here this last year, it’s what we want to continue for generations to come.”

'Rudolph, come here!'

This line of succession makes even more sense when you consider the history of those involved.

More than three decades ago, when Hiestand was at Cincinnati as offensive coordinator and line coach, he was impressed by a promising young lineman from the Pittsburgh suburb of Belle Vernon.

“Harry actually recruited me,” Rudolph, 50, said in March. “He sat in my living room. My mom made a lot of good food for him. I’ve known Harry for a long time and have a ton of respect for him and how he goes about coaching, how he works and what he instills in his players.”

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Hiestand lost that recruiting battle to Wisconsin, where former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez made Rudolph part of his first signing class. A quarter century later, Hiestand and Rudolph crossed paths again in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wexford, this time with Lugg as the recruiting prize.

Rudolph gave it his best shot as he tried to lure Lugg to Madison.

“It’s been, what, eight years?” Lugg said. “I remember that he was all about football. When we were talking football, (Rudolph) was like, ‘How was your game? What’s a couple things you could’ve worked on?’ He’s positive and demanding, but never demeaning.”

Rudolph’s deep ties in the Pittsburgh area included a connection to the legendary Joe Moore, the late namesake of the endowed position Rudolph now holds and the national line award Notre Dame last won in 2017, when Lugg took a redshirt and Hiestand was his line coach.

“Coach Moore used to come up to Wisconsin practices when I was playing,” Rudolph said. “He would meet with Coach (Bill) Callahan.  He would always yell at me: ‘Rudolph, come here!’ He was pretty awesome. Really good guy. He would always be dead honest about stuff that he loved that you did or something he thought you could do better.”

Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph speaks with redshirt freshman guard Billy Schrauth (74) during drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

After a brief stint in the NFL, Rudolph went back to Belle Vernon and was coaching the offensive line at his old high school when he heard that same raspy voice. It was Moore, who coached Irish linemen for Lou Holtz’s last nine seasons at Notre Dame (1988-96).   

“(Moore) was hanging over the fence,” Rudolph recalled. “He yelled at me: ‘Rudolph, are you coaching over here? I’m calling Callahan and letting him know that you’re out here coaching.’ I’ll never forget that. Growing up there, I always knew the offensive lines he had at Pitt and followed those guys in a big way. Then I knew the offensive lines he had here at Notre Dame. Him being around at times was pretty remarkable.”

Wayne Bugel, the longtime offensive line coach at North Allegheny, was part of Rudolph’s football network as well.

“I know he had a great relationship with my offensive line coach,” Lugg said. “That was another big thing for me, too: ‘OK, my offensive line coach was a descendant of Joe Moore as well,’ so I got those basics and fundamentals from very early on in my playing career. For my O-line coach in high school to say, ‘(Rudolph) is teaching the right things, he’s a good guy,’ that helped me as well.”

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In the end, Lugg couldn’t say no to Notre Dame, but it wasn’t anything against Rudolph.

“What makes him a great recruiter and what makes Coach Hiestand a great recruiter isn’t that they’re texting you early in the morning: ‘Wisconsin’s the greatest school in the world,’ “ Lugg said “It’s that you witness how they develop players. The right players see that, and that’s what’s number one in the recruiting. I want to see how they react to the current players, how they treat the current players, how they develop them. That’s the best recruiting pitch.

“Coach Hiestand was phenomenal at that. He didn’t need to go into people’s homes and put up this big marketing plan of like, ‘This is how we’re going to do your NIL at Notre Dame.’ It was like: ‘You’re going to come here? Look at how I’ve developed these last six classes. It can be you, but you have to make that choice.’ It’s a hard choice, and not everybody wants to make that choice.”

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