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Fiesta Bowl offensive line shuffle could be precursor of Notre Dame’s 2022

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 05: Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive lineman Blake Fisher (54) during the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Florida State Seminoles on September 5, 2021 at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bowl games inevitably lead to immediate and often overreactive projections of the next season, and a shift along No. 5 Notre Dame’s offensive line this week before the New Year’s Day Fiesta Bowl (1 ET; ESPN) will play right into that tendency.

Fifth-year right tackle Josh Lugg will miss facing No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) thanks to a minor meniscus tear. Irish freshman Blake Fisher will step in for Lugg, himself finally recovered from a meniscus tear suffered in the season opener.

Fisher was the second freshman in Notre Dame history to start the season opener along the offensive line, only to then miss the next 11-plus games.

“I didn’t know going into bowl practice that he was going to be able to play, and he’s gotten to the point where he’s ready to play and ready to help us,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “... With the loss of Josh Lugg during bowl practice, this is something that kind of naturally happened.”

After Fisher went down in September, Notre Dame churned through sophomores Michael Carmody (sprained ankle) and Tosh Baker (concussion) before getting to freshman Joe Alt at left tackle. Alt not only stayed healthy, but he proved more than up to the task, earning multiple freshman All-American honors. His starting debut at Virginia Tech marked a turning point in the Irish season.

“Joe Alt has done an unbelievable job as our left tackle and has been a huge asset to our offensive line throughout the course of the year,” Freeman said. “The ability to kind of not have [two] moving pieces, right? Instead of moving Blake to left tackle, Joe to right tackle, let’s just leave Joe where he’s done a great job and where he’s excelled at.

“Move Blake right into that right tackle spot, and we’re extremely excited about having both of those guys on the field.”

It would be presumptuous to look at Alt at left tackle and Fisher at right tackle and immediately assume that will be the 2022 alignment, but it would also be a bit logical. When healthy, Notre Dame clearly feels Fisher is one of its five best offensive linemen, and Alt proved to be one of those, as well. Their combined length and athleticism would make them nearly peerless bookends.

Lugg’s injury apparently first occurred earlier in the season, but to a lesser extent, so Lugg could better play through it.

“He’s had it for a while, and when he planted [during bowl practices], it kind of flipped the meniscus a little bit more,” Freeman said. “We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to get this thing fixed right away.’

“He’s had it throughout the season and he’s been able to fight through it.”

This does not necessarily end the fifth-year lineman’s Irish career. Last month, he left the door open to returning for a sixth season, a possibility granted only by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.

“I’ve had quite a bit of conversations in the last couple weeks, and I’ll make a decision here in the next week,” Lugg said before Thanksgiving, though if any such decision has been made, it has not been made publicly. “... I have another year to help freshmen coming in and younger guys on the team grow.

“Just like how Hunter Bivin helped me when he was a fifth-year and I was a freshman. It’s a great opportunity to help younger guys understand the standard at Notre Dame and what it means to be a Notre Dame man. Why not use that opportunity to change some lives and not just grow myself but help grow others into being Notre Dame men?”

If Lugg does indeed return, along with Alt and junior left guard Andrew Kristofic, the Irish would have three returning starters for sure, though offseason storylines will inflate that to four by counting Fisher. All the while, senior center and captain Jarrett Patterson could also yet return.

To put that into context, moving Lugg to guard next year — something he has indicated he would be open to — to accommodate Fisher’s return along with a hypothetical Patterson return would give Notre Dame 66 returning starts among its top-five linemen (including the coming Fiesta Bowl appearances) and 74 total. This season, the Irish returned 31 career starts among their offensive linemen, then supplemented by the 31 starts Cain Madden touted at Marshall.

Lugg’s reasons for returning in 2022 could not have sounded nobler, and hopefully, they also include some selfish hopes of improving his NFL profile and perhaps chasing another Playoff appearance. But there may also be reason to head to the NFL now, provided he receives some measure of positive draft feedback, not something to outright rule out.

Lugg has battled back issues and now a meniscus tear. Even with this latest setback, he is closer to full health than he has been throughout most of his career. If there is currently a chance at a few six-figure paychecks, he should take that chance.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston will call plays in place of Freeman on Saturday, not that the former defensive coordinator will be too detached from his old role.

“We’re going to work hand-in-hand like we’ve done all year,” Freeman said. “I’m going to be right there with him.”

Defensive analyst Nick Lezynski will be officially an on-field coach, working with the linebackers and the special teams. That is the furthest thing from a surprise but is now official.

This was not meant to be a long holiday break. The build-up to Marcus Freeman’s first game as Notre Dame’s head coach should overrule a three-day pause at Christmas. The silence was nothing so glamorous.

Rather, the first present unwrapped here on Christmas morning was a 102-degree fever and a subsequent positive test. All is well enough now, though, as evidenced by the laptop being open long enough to get out this update.

Skip the well wishes and accept the apology.

That fever would have required me to be tested under Notre Dame’s current protocols. No, I’m not subject to them, but just as a frame of reference.

Per Freeman, the Irish are continuing with their season-long approach of testing vaccinated individuals only when they show symptoms (like me on Christmas morning). That could, of course, change quickly given current realities.

Furthermore, Notre Dame knows this cannot be a typical bowl trip. Most years, a week in Arizona would literally include a night without a curfew, or at least a relaxed curfew. No such allowances are made these days.

“You cannot come down here and just go out and hang out and treat this like a normal bowl trip,” Freeman said. “We have to be really smart, and I think our team is definitely understanding the case and understanding what we have to do.”

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