The 2021 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will have plenty of intriguing storylines to watch. From a new defensive coordinator in Marcus Freeman, to a potential grad transfer starting at quarterback in Jack Coan, to questions surrounding the offensive skill positions, the list could go on and on. Despite all of those juicy items, the thing I am most excited about watching throughout the season is the offensive line play.
Following the conclusion of the 2020 season, Brian Kelly and Jeff Quinn bid adieu to 4 of their 5 starting offensive linemen. Liam Eichenberg (Dolphins), Aaron Banks (49ers), and Robert Hainsey (Buccaneers) all heard their names called during the 2021 draft, while Tommy Kraemer signed as an undrafted free agent with the Lions. The lone returner from last season will be Jarrett Patterson, who suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury on his left foot against Boston College. Currently, Patterson is in the midst of his recovery from the injury and figures to be cleared for the beginning of fall camp.
The biggest difference between the 2020 line and 2021 line lies in their experience. Notably, the 2020 Irish offensive line had a combined 114 career starts. On the flip side, the returning 2021 Irish offensive linemen have a total of 31 career starts to their name. This number could increase dramatically if, as expected, 2020 second-team All-American grad transfer Cain Madden cracks the starting five. Madden alone has 31 career starts to his name. His experience should be a tremendous boost to the group and immediately solidifies the right guard position.
Furthermore, it is a near lock that Zeke Correll will assume the mantle as the team’s starting center. Correll was recruited by the staff as the center of the future in 2019. Although Patterson held down the position the past 2 seasons, Correll was able to gain a bit of experience when he started the Rose Bowl against Alabama following Patterson’s injury.
The real fun begins when trying to determine the other 3 starting positions along the line. Blake Fisher impressed the staff throughout spring practice. During the vast majority of spring, the freshman ran with the first-team offense at left tackle and more than held his own. While it has been extremely rare for a freshman offensive lineman to start under Brian Kelly, Fisher appears to possess the necessary tools to pull it off.
Jarrett Patterson will almost assuredly reclaim a starting position along the offensive line. Recently, Patterson was named the 4th best returning interior offensive linemen in college football for the 2021 season by Pro Football Focus. However, Patterson was originally recruited as a left tackle. The question becomes does Quinn place Patterson at left guard as a buffer between the youngsters at left tackle and center, or does he kick Patterson out to right tackle, thus most likely creating a place for freshman Rocco Spindler at left guard and sending Josh Lugg to the bench. My guess is that Patterson begins the year at left guard.
At the right tackle position, Josh Lugg should finally get his chance to shine as a starter. Over the past two years, Lugg has played the utility role and started 8 games for the Irish when needed. He has experience all over the board, starting 5 games at right tackle following an injury to Robert Hainsey in 2019, 1 game at right guard following an appendectomy for Tommy Kraemer in 2020, and 2 games at center following Patterson’s foot injury. However, based on his performance during spring, his improved body composition, and Brian Kelly’s comments about Lugg, I think the 5th year senior will be the right tackle for the upcoming season.
To recap, my prediction, along with many others, is that Fisher will start at left tackle, Patterson at left guard, Correll at center, Madden at right guard, and Lugg at right tackle. The first two guys off the bench for the Irish will most likely be Rocco Spindler and Tosh Baker, both of whom had fairly impressive springs themselves.
Besides the trend that appears to be when Notre Dame has a good offensive line, they have a successful season; I am also deeply intrigued how Jeff Quinn is able to manage this year. Josh Lugg is the last remaining player that spent a year under the tutelage of the esteemed Harry Hiestand. When Brian Kelly named Quinn as the team’s offensive line coach in early 2018, there was a major outcry from many Irish fans that Kelly was continuing his practice of cronyism. Yet, since Hiestand left, Quinn has continued to recruit at an extremely high level, and the offensive line play has continued to be stellar. This season will be Quinn’s biggest on-field test since he assumed the position due to the number of new pieces along the line. Personally, I believe Quinn is a more than capable coach and has done a great job since the start of the 2018 season. If he is able to keep up the standard of excellence from previous seasons, there should be no more questions about Quinn’s coaching ability and should help solidify him as one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.
Ultimately, we all know that offensive line play has not been the thing holding Notre Dame back in the marquee contests the past several years. Rather, the offensive line has typically been the catalyst for a successful regular season more often than not since Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend. As a result, the performance of the offensive line is what I am most excited about for the upcoming season.