With news this week that Josh Lugg is debating returning to the football program for a 6th season, Notre Dame’s 2022 offensive line has the potential to return to the elite ranks in college football. Depending on if Jarrett Patterson opts to return for a 5th season, the Irish may only have one spot that needs to be settled during the spring and summer. A talented, experienced offensive line could pay dividends in the season opener on the road against what is sure to be a top-five Ohio State team.
Lugg’s return should not change the fact that Blake Fisher and Joe Alt should be the starting tackles moving forward. Whether Fisher reclaims his left tackle position or Alt remains as the blindside protector is an entirely different conversation. Both freshmen possess impressive size with Fisher standing 6’6’’ and Alt at 6’ 7’’. Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I would personally opt to give Alt the first crack at left tackle due to his performance during the second half of the season at the position. Fisher sliding to right tackle on its face may seem like a poor decision. However, Alt has more game experience at this point, and if Tyler Buchner is playing quarterback, the right tackle position will increase in importance as Rees is likely to take advantage of Buchner’s mobility to create a moving pocket a fair amount of the time.
The starters on the interior will hinge on whether or not Patterson opts to return for a 5th season. At this juncture, Patterson would not be the top center off the board as that designation is most certainly going to go to Tyler Linderbaum if he opts to declare for the NFL Draft. Rather, Patterson is probably looking at a 2nd or 3rd round selection at the current time. A case could be made that Patterson could dramatically improve his draft stock by returning. Throughout the earlier portion of this season, it seemed as though Patterson was trying to do his job, along with the jobs of the other offensive linemen due to the uneven performances at several positions. Patterson’s own play suffered as a result. A return for the 2022 season with a much more seasoned should allow Patterson to return to his 2020 form.
If Patterson does return to South Bend at center, then I believe the staff’s best option could be to slot Lugg at right guard. Last season, Lugg started one game at the position when Tommy Kramer missed the North Carolina game due to an emergency appendectomy. Lugg and Patterson starting next to each other would provide the Irish a solid foundation on the interior. While Lugg may be most comfortable at tackle, an argument can be made that he isn’t as talented as Fisher, nor as projectable as Alt. This would leave the left guard position as the only remaining question mark. Andrew Kristofic currently holds the starting moniker and has been a stabilizing presence at the position, allowing Notre Dame’s run game to flourish in the second half of the 2021 season. The major question is: will Kristofic be able to hold off one of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits from the 2021 class in Rocco Spindler. Spindler may simply be too talented to leave on the sidelines for a second season, pushing Kristofic to the swingman along the offensive line. This would leave the starting five from left to right being: Alt, Spindler, Patterson, Lugg, and Fisher. I would certainly sign up for that line and believe that the team would flourish with the blend of talent and experience.
Things become a bit more interesting on the interior if Patterson declares for the NFL Draft. The center position would become the biggest question mark. Kristofic saw ample work at center in the spring while Patterson rehabbed from a foot injury during the spring. With two years of eligibility remaining, he could solidify the center position for the foreseeable future. This would allow Spindler to move into the left guard position, while Lugg would hold down the right guard position. Another option would be for the staff to slide Lugg to center. Lugg did start two games at the position during the 2020 season, though his build and game do not seem to translate as well to center as it would guard. Yet, putting Lugg at center for one season allows the continuity that has been built this season between Alt and Kristofic to remain in place on the left side, while the right side would be far more inexperienced, yet talented, with Spindler and Fisher at the guard and tackle position, respectively. A final option could involve moving Zeke Correll to center. In this instance, Lugg again would slot in at right guard, while Kristofic and Spindler would be in a competition for the final guard position. Similar to Kristofic, Correll does have two years of eligibility remaining. However, due to Correll’s ineffectiveness at left guard this season, this currently appears to be the least likely of the scenarios.
Ultimately, there is no way of knowing who will be the starting five offensive linemen during the season opener against Ohio State next year. Injuries, transfers, underperformance, and under-the-radar candidates have a way of messing up the best-laid plans. However, it is an interesting topic to consider as we near the end of the 2021 season.