Any time Notre Dame enters a season with an experienced offensive line, it’s like a nice warm blanket that covers everything. Yeah, there are always questions other places that need to be addressed, but when line has something like 100 career starts coming back, it acts as a cover for everything else.
There is no warm and fuzzy feeling heading into 2021, unfortunately. Gone are three year starters Liam Eichenberg and Aaron Banks, and four year starters Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey. That quartet won a bunch of games together, were the centerpiece to the team in 2020, and are now all gone. There is no more certainty with the unit, but uncertainty doesn’t mean failure, it just means we don’t know. And that’s ok.
Notre Dame Offensive Linemen Leaving
- Liam Eichenberg – Three year starter, 1st team All-American
- Aaron Banks – Three year starter, 1st team All-American
- Tommy Kraemer – Four year starter
- Robert Hainsey -Four year starter, captain
- Colin Grunhard – former walk-on, appeared in 11 games total
That’s….a lot of pieces going out the door. Eichenberg and Banks were both named All-Americans, Kraemer consistently made pre-season teams, and Hainsey was a two time captain. Here is the thing to remember about this group, though. With the exception of Hainsey and Kraemer, who were co-starters at right tackle in 2017, this quartet didn’t become full time starters until the 2018 season, after Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson moved on to the NFL. The 2018 season brought a very similar type of uncertainty to the line as we’re seeing now going into 2021. Famously, the 2018 started 12-0 and earned a playoff berth. Which just goes to the notion that uncertainty does not equal failure or guarantee poor play.
Notre Dame Offensive Linemen Returning
- OT Jarrett Patterson (2 years remaining)- two year starter at center
- OT Josh Lugg (1) – multiple starts at right guard and right tackle
- C Zeke Correll (3)- two starts at center
- OG Dillon Gibbons (1) – three star, #374 overall
- OG John Dirksen (2) – three star, #515 overall
- OT Andrew Kristofic (3)- four star, #183 overall
- OG Quinn Carroll (3) – four star, #118 overall
- OT Tosh Baker (4) – four star, #100 overall
- OT Michael Carmody (4)- four star, #146 overall
As you can see, the only returning players with meaningful playing time are Patterson, Lugg, and Correll. Fortunately, they not only have playing time, they have high quality playing time. Patterson has proven he can play at a high level over multiple seasons. He is looking at a likely position switch over to left tackle though, so that’s something to monitor over spring and the offseason. Correll started twice last year at center, against North Carolina and Alabama, and played well on both occasions. He’s a former top 100 player who has been pegged to play center from the start, so to see him play well in two high pressure situations is very promising. I think we can expect a high level from him going forward.
Lugg has a Tommy Kraemer feel to him. He’s got pedigree as a top 150 player, but he’s banged up a lot and hasn’t put it all together. He’s also never been a full time starter, and he’s finally getting that chance. He’s another player who has seen a lot of action and we know he can play at a high level. The expectation is he’ll start at right tackle.
That leaves the two guard spots as up for grabs going into next season, with Gibbons, Dirksen, and Carroll the returning players who have played the position before. The early money is on Gibbons and Carroll, a combination of pedigree in Carroll and experience in Gibbons, a 5th year senior. But, they’ll have to hold off challenges from some freshmen.
Incoming Notre Dame Offensive Linemen
- OG Blake Fisher – four star, #53 overall
- OG Rocco Spindler – four star, #57 overall
- OT Caleb Johnson – four star, #323 overall
- OT Joe Alt – three star, #401 overall
- OG Pat Coogan – three star, #608 overall
Notre Dame signed two top 100 offensive guards, and there are two available guard spots open. I’d put the chances of both players earning starting spots as freshmen at very low, but one of them would not be a shocker at all, even if it’s usually not how Notre Dame does things on the line. The conventional wisdom is Spindler is the more prepared of the two freshmen, and both players enroll early, but they’ll both have every chance to play in 2021. In general, Notre Dame likes to go with experience over upside, but the opportunity to get multiple players with years of eligibility left into the lineup to build that chemistry going into a big 2022 season has to be a factor for the staff. The guard-center-guard combination could all have 3+ years to work together, starting in 2021. Very intriguing indeed.
The line features a lot of uncertainty, but as always not a shortage of talent. As was the case in 2018, there is enough material at Jeff Quinn‘s disposal to field a very good group in 2021, it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces that can work together. Does Patterson really fit at tackle? Can a freshman start at guard? Is Lugg ready to be a full time player? Notre Dame is very fortunate they are going through this in 2021 and not 2020 when all of spring practice was lost due to the pandemic hitting. They will likely get the full allotment of practices in the spring, and the regular run up to the season. They will very much need it this year, in a way they didn’t last season.
This will be an interesting competition as to who are among the top eight or so OL. With all the noted talent as recruits ( three returning w/ starting experience and four more among the top HS OL recruits), it will come down to how well they develop. Who will be the surprise? Will the four top 120 recruits already there dominate? Which will surpass their recruiting rating and become solid contributors? Coach Quinn faces his most daunting challenge, but the cupboard is far from bare, regardless of inexperience. With such depth ND will have an outstanding top eight or so and should (excuse me for shoulding on them, as no one wants to be should on) continue to be recognized as among the elite OL.