Between the high-profile NFL success of recent alums and the excellent recruiting of its coaching staff, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program has gained a reputation as an O-line powerhouse. The fruits of those efforts are apparent coming into 2020, as Notre Dame returns an entire starting five of experienced, high-quality players on the line.
These guys provide a great foundation for Tommy Rees and co. to build a new offense on. Behind them is a plethora of talented players duking it out for reps and the opportunity to be the next man in. We’ll give you the rundown on each of these guys in the final installment of Rees’s Pieces.
The Front Line
LT: Liam Eichenberg
Eichenberg had a few struggles in 2020, the most well-known of which was his penchant for drive-and-soul-crushing false starts. However, it’s worth noting that his immediate predecessor at left tackle, Mike McGlinchey, had similar struggles earlier in his career. Things turned out alright for McGlinchey, who you may have noticed starting in the Super Bowl recently, and Eichenberg may be able to make a similar jump.
The most crucial requirement of a left tackle is to be an ace pass blocker and protect the quarterback’s blind side. Eichenberg passed that test with flying colors in 2019, going the entire season without surrendering a sack. His quickness and excellent hip and feet movement help him immensely in this regard, and also make him very effective in sealing off running lanes. If Eichenberg can take steps forward in a few areas of his game (in addition to penalties, he could improve a little on timing his blocks and using his hands), he can be a dominant player who makes Ian Book’s life a lot easier in 2020.
LG: Aaron Banks
Banks took over as the starting left guard in 2019 after getting significant spot time the previous year when Alex Bars suffered a season-ending injury. His overwhelming strength and power inside helped him clear many a running lane for Irish backs (whether they found them was another matter) in 2019. Like his counterpart at left tackle, Banks has been incredibly effective in the passing game, with a 2.1% pressure rate - good for seventh-best in the country among guards - over the last two years.
In the past, a player like Banks would have hoped to move to tackle to increase his exposure and have a chance at getting to the NFL draft. In recent years, however, guards have been more appreciated by college coaches and gotten more exposure at the pro level (thanks in no small part to former Irish guard Quenton Nelson), and I think we can look forward to seeing Banks crush opponents on the inside for the rest of his career in South Bend. He and Eichenberg form a formidable left side that should keep Ian Book protected and create lots of running room for the likes of Jafar Armstrong, Chris Tyree and co.
C: Jarrett Patterson
Patterson surprised a lot of people with his quick rise to become a starter in 2019, his redshirt freshman year, at a position he was not recruited to play. The move turned out to be a good one: his pressure rate in 2019 was the seventh-best among returning players at his position. As a former tackle, Patterson brings plus athleticism and pass-blocking skills to the interior of the Irish offensive line.
Where Patterson has already shown significant improvement - but still needs to improve more - is in the running game, where his length and athleticism don’t help him as much. Patterson has been learning for the last year and will continue to learn to hit lower and get leverage. As he continues to grow in that regard, watch out. Notre Dame could have a dominant player clearing the way down the center for years to come.
RG: Tommy Kraemer
Kraemer’s season was shortened by injury in one of the worst events that took place during the worst game of the season for the Irish. Prior to that, he had established himself as a powerful and effective inside blocker after an uncertain start to his career. After struggling to master the nuances of pass blocking as a tackle, he focused on developing the ability to move and pull as a guard while continuing to create a push up front.
Kraemer established himself as a solid, reliable starter at the guard position in 2019. In 2020, he could remain that or progress to become a bona fide NFL prospect. A player of Kramer’s experience and skill at right guard is a luxury and a testament to how well Notre Dame has recruited along the offensive line.
RT: Robert Hainsey
A week after Kraemer went down against Michigan, Hainsey joined him on the injury list - lost for the season to a broken ankle. This was a major loss, because out of this highly skilled, veteran lineup, the returning captain Hainsey may be the best of the bunch. Hainsey is a consistently aggressive player, a leader and a model of consistency in both passing and running situations.
Hainsey’s aggressive style of play, quickness and natural low pad level make him a highly effective run blocker. He is even stronger, however, in the passing game, where he has had the third-lowest pressure rate in the country over the last two years among returning players at right tackle. Because Hainsey started as a true freshman - a rarity among offensive linemen and a testament to his skill - 2020 is his last year of eligibility, but I have a feeling he’ll be far from done playing football when this season is over.
Utility man: Josh Lugg
Suffering periodic injuries along the offensive line is so close to a certainty that the group’s sixth man is essentially a starter himself. The player most likely to fill that role after the departure of Trevor Ruhland is Lugg, who projected as a tackle out of high school but cross-trained at center and right guard before he filled in at the right tackle position after Hainsey’s injury. Going forward, Lugg’s versatility and experience will likely make him the go-to guy in the event of an injury just about anywhere on the line.
Lugg’s strength, athleticism and great instincts should make the Irish very happy to have him ready to come onto the field when he is needed. Expect him to take on a full-time starting role somewhere on the line in 2021.
Next Men In
Some guys were just born for the fight, and Gibbons is one of them. He plays with a natural mean streak, and that combined with his strength makes him an ideal prospect for the interior offensive line. A rising senior in 2020, Gibbons has consistently played well enough in practice and limited game action to warrant consideration for open positions at guard and center, but has never been able to take the next step and push out other contenders.
With the entire starting lineup from 2019 returning, it looks like that pattern will hold for the year to come. Look to see Gibbons in 2020 in mop-up action - if the Irish are winning by 35 and you still see an opponent’s defensive lineman getting blown five yards off the ball, it’s probably Gibbons doing the pushing - or if the Irish suffer an injury on the interior line. In 2021, he will likely be a favorite for a vacated guard spot.
It was clear from early on in Kristofic’s recruitment that the Irish thought of him as a future left tackle. It’s easy to see why with his athleticism, long wingspan, and natural pass-blocking skills. His quick progression won the praise of the position’s current occupant, Liam Eichenberg, and the staff’s trust in Kristofic is made clear by the fact that they played him the absolute maximum amount - four games - they could while still preserving his redshirt.
Kristofic will likely compete with Quinn Carroll for the number-two slot at LT in 2020, with the other taking the number-two slot on the right side. In 2021, when both Eichenberg and Hainsey have moved on, Kristofic will have the chance to compete for a starting role.
Grunhard’s is a classic Notre Dame story: the son of a former Irish player, he turned down D-II scholarship offers to walk on for the Irish. He then fought his way up the depth chart past multiple scholarship players, became the team’s number-two center during the 2019 season and earned himself a spring-semester scholarship.
Grunhard has proved his work ethic and his ability to hang with scholarship players. Whether he remains the number-two center will depend on whether he can continue to raise his game and hold off the younger Zeke Correll, who was recruited specifically for the position. Regardless, a guy with his attitude and determination is an asset on any team, and you have to tip your cap to him.
After seeing minimal action in his first two years as he gained strength and learned from his teammates and coaching staff, this is a big year for Dirksen. He’ll have an opportunity for him to crack the two-deep at guard and get more meaningful playing time. He will have to beat out competition from higher-rated younger players, but his experience as an older player with some college minutes under his belt could give him the leg up he needs.
As a prospect, Dirksen brought ideal size, at 6’5” and 307 pounds, and strength to the Irish football program. With two years of college-level coaching and conditioning under his belt, now is the time for him to make moves.
Mabry’s playing time in 2019 was limited due to an injury suffered in the home opener against New Mexico. Prior to that, however, he had made enormous progress and worked himself into the rotation at tackle in his sophomore year. For a guy who was a mid-level three-star recruit, that’s a pretty quick rise up the depth chart.
At 6’6”, Mabry has great length and athleticism, but may find himself stuck behind more highly touted prospects in Lugg, Kristofic and Quinn Carroll going forward. There is playing time to be had this year and there will be open spots next year, but Mabry is going to have to fight hard to claim them.
Correll served as the scout-team center in 2019 after competing for the starting role alongside Patterson and Grunhard. Reports out of practice indicated that he impressed in that role, and took on each rep with a fiery attitude.
That attitude will help Correll as he looks to carve out a role on the interior offensive line, whether at center or guard, in the future. His strength, body control, and footwork will likely make him impossible to keep off the field in the near future.
One of the highest-rated recruits in the class of 2019, Carroll suffered an ACL injury in fall camp that kept him from competing for playing time. Those minutes would have been hard to come by anyway given Notre Dame’s depth, but Carroll’s talents likely would have put him into contention for the number-two spot at right tackle. Carroll will be fighting for that slot again in 2020.
It’s no surprise that Carroll was slotted in as a tackle right away in college, as he has a classic build for the position, with the quick feet and coordination to be an effective pass blocker and impressive power and leverage in the run game. Don’t be surprised to see him compete for and maybe even claim a starting role in 2021.
Olmstead has yet to play a down at Notre Dame, but that’s not yet a reason to worry as he is only entering his redshirt freshman season. A tackle at the high school level, Olmstead was almost immediately moved inside to guard, where his athleticism will give him an edge and his strength and size fit in well.
As a recruit, Olmstead stood out for his lower body strength and powerful motor, which made him an extremely effective run blocker. He spent the last year developing upper-body strength and becoming a more complete pass blocker, and it looks like more of that is in store in 2020. Look for Olmstead to start competing for backup minutes in 2021.
Baker is an incoming freshman from Phoenix, Arizona. It was no mean feat to pull Baker, the highest-rate offensive line recruit in Notre Dame’s class, out of the heart of the Southwest - an area the Irish don’t often penetrate.
Baker is already a mammoth presence at 6’7”. That height and reach combine with his mobility, outstanding footwork, and quickness to give him all the makings of an elite tackle prospect. He’ll likely be spending the next year or two adding weight to his long frame and becoming a more complete run blocker before taking on a starring role later in his career, and we should all be eager to see him get on the field.
Hailing from Mars, Pennsylvania, Carmody is nearly as large a prospect as his Southwestern counterpart at 6’6” and 285 pounds. Carmody is also similar to Baker in that he has a basketball background and was praised during his recruitment for his athleticism and footwork.
Carmody’s future is likely alongside Baker at one of the tackle spots in 2022 or later, but a look at the depth chart above him reveals that the Irish will have little hesitation moving him inside if he’s ready to compete there. Regardless of where he ends up, he is yet another excellent pass-blocking lineman for us to be excited about in this program.