Despite having only one spring practice in 2020, Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line that might have four players drafted by the NFL later this month was still able to flex its muscle en route to the College Football Playoff.
This spring, the unit is going through a different kind of flexing — and it comes with a caveat from head coach Brian Kelly.
“I know you guys kind of look at the [3-minute highlight] roll we send out, and I would try to be careful to not look too far into, ‘This is the starting lineup,’” he said. “We’re really trying to build position flexibility right now.”
The past two years, 2021 fifth-year senior Josh Lugg has been referred to as the line’s Swiss Army Knife because he has trained at all the positions, making five starts at right tackle in 2019, plus two at center last year and another at right guard. This year, there are several Lugg-like figures getting experimented with this spring, particularly because 2019-20 starting center Jarrett Patterson currently is rehabbing from foot surgery and could well be in for a position change himself.
One player who appears most locked in at one position is junior Zeke Correll at center after starting there in the final two games versus Clemson and Alabama, when Patterson was out. An entire spring of working with quarterbacks Jack Coan and Drew Pyne — who, per Kelly, are taking equal reps with the first team — might provide some valued continuity there for Correll.
In case of an emergency, junior Andrew Kristofic and sophomore Michael Carmody also have been working at center this spring. Kristofic was listed at the No. 2 left tackle last season, while Carmody’s career also began at tackle. A guard option is possible for Kristofic, while Carmody could still be stationed at tackle.
A popular and plausible notion is that Patterson could be the starting left tackle this season. The current spring lineup there has sophomore Tosh Baker and early entrant five-star freshman Blake Fisher both taking reps with the first team.
“That’s an interesting one,” said Kelly of the left tackle position that has been the single-strongest position in his 11-year tenure, featuring first-round picks Zack Martin (2010-13), Ronnie Stanley (2014-15) and Mike McGlinchey (2016-17)— and maybe even Liam Eichenberg (2018-20), who at worst might be a second-rounder.
Since 2008, 42 of the 45 freshman offensive linemen Notre Dame has signed were red-shirted. The three who weren’t were all early entrants who ended up starting several times or playing regularly as rookies: Trevor Robinson (2008), Steve Elmer (2013) and Robert Hainsey (2017).
Fisher could become the fourth, and possibly left guard Rocco Spindler as well. Also working at left guard is fifth-year senior Dillan Gibbons, who started against Syracuse last season, with the possibility that Kristofic or Lugg likewise could align there.
On the right side of the line, Lugg is the likely starting tackle, but Kelly already has hinted that come August with the return of Patterson, Lugg could be downshifted to guard. Meanwhile, junior Quinn Carroll purportedly began this spring at right guard but now is taking reps at tackle. Quinn was the nation’s No. 68 overall prospect in 2019.
The wild card in all of this is Patterson, because he can line up most anywhere, depending on where the four other top perceived starters at the start of the season fit in and function the best individually and collectively.
“Everybody is kind of getting an opportunity at different positions, and there’s very competitive opportunities for each position,” Kelly said. “I mean that for all of them. I could probably give you 10 guys right now — 13 guys in total —competing for positions [on the offensive line].”
To assume that a concrete, set lineup will be established after 15 spring practices, concluding with the May 1 Blue-Gold Game, probably is not realistic with so many moving parts in need of assessment. And there is still a full summer of workouts and August training camp to go afterwards.
“It’s going to take some time,” Kelly summarized.