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Heat slows new-look Notre Dame offensive line to open preseason practices; QB competition continues for now

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive lineman Zeke Correll (52) blocks during a game against the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you can’t stand the heat, get into the kitchen before the next practice. Or something like that.

Such was the thinking of Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman after the first preseason practice for the Irish on Friday. As Freeman memorably said in the viral video showcasing the uniforms Notre Dame will wear in the Shamrock Series against BYU on Oct. 8, he is not the players’ friend, he is their head coach. And the head coach understandably gets frustrated when two starting offensive linemen were not adequately prepared for the early August heat.

He minced no words for sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher and senior Zeke Correll, both ending the first practice sidelined due to overheating.

“It’s a great reminder, those guys have been busting their tails all summer to get in shape, and then you get out there that first practice — the heat, the sweat, the anxiety, the energy, it all just kicks up,” Freeman said Friday. “That’s why I remind them after practice, it’s your job to make sure you’re available. What you have to do from now until tomorrow when we’re back on the field, it’s up to you and it’s up to each individual to make sure they’re ready to go.”

As understandable as Freeman’s frustration was, it was also understandable that two players weighing 327 and 308 pounds, respectively, wore out in humid weather with temperatures in the upper 80s.

The more notable aspect of Correll’s fatigue was that he was part of Notre Dame’s starting offensive line. He spent the spring starting at center, but that was when a torn pectoral forced fifth-year offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to the sideline. Patterson has started three seasons at center. Correll (No. 52 above) would have to force the issue to usurp the veteran.

And Correll did, moving Patterson to left guard in place of senior Andrew Kristofic. Correll began last season starting at left guard before giving way to Kristofic.

“We feel like right now, [Patterson] playing guard is what gives our offensive line the best chance to have success,” Freeman said. “You got to look at that unit in terms of all five, not in individual pieces. [Patterson] being at guard we feel like gives those five guys up front the best chance to be successful.”

To put that more directly, Correll proved he is one of the five best offensive linemen, and returned Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has always prioritized finding a way to get those five on the field.

An alignment of, from left to right, sophomore Joe Alt, Patterson, Correll, sixth-year Josh Lugg and Fisher gives Hiestand those five.

Aside from those respites from the heat, little unavailability surprised Notre Dame to open preparations for the season. Freeman said only three players are already known as unavailable for the opener at Ohio State on Sept. 3: fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins (Lisfranc), sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans (foot) and early-enrolled freshman running back Jadarian Price (Achilles).

Freeman left the door open for not only sixth-year receiver Avery Davis (ACL) and senior linebacker Marist Liufau (dislocated ankle last August) to play against the Buckeyes, but also sophomore running back Logan Diggs, who suffered a labrum injury in the Blue-Gold Game in April.

While Diggs wore a red jersey to keep him from contact in practice, Davis and Liufau were limited only via the number of reps they would take, not in the effort given on those reps.

Freeman maintained a “two-quarterback battle right now” between sophomore Tyler Buchner and junior Drew Pyne, but Buchner reportedly took the bulk of the first-team snaps on Friday. Whether a nominal competition or a genuine one, Freeman intends to end it sooner than later.

“As soon as we can,” he said. “I love the competition aspect of it. I think competition really helps people grow, but as soon as we’re ready to name a starting quarterback, we’re going to do it.”

Early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman Joey Tanona’s career ended before it began. He was in a car accident in the winter, riding as the passenger, and suffered a rough concussion that kept him out of the rest of spring practices.

In the spring, Hiestand was simply glad Tanona escaped with nothing worse than a concussion.

“It’s a blessing that he’s just dealing with what he’s dealing with — that it wasn’t worse,” Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “That was a terrible accident. I saw pictures of the cars. Terrible, terrible, right where he was sitting.”

Nonetheless, the accident ended Tanona’s career, as he has medically retired, per Freeman.

“He kept trying to come back and, mentally and physically, was not in a place that he was ready to play football,” Freeman said. “So he decided to medically retire. He’ll still be here to get his degree.”

A former consensus four-star recruit, the Indiana native chose Notre Dame over offers from the biggest names in the Big Ten.

“A lot of people don’t like the state of Indiana, because it’s always cold and dark here,” he said in February. “But I’ve been here my whole life, and I love it.”

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion

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