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Leftovers & Links: NFL-bound offensive linemen praise Notre Dame’s remaining veteran

Notre Dame offensive line

There is a version of this offseason where the narrative around Notre Dame’s offensive line claimed the Irish return “five linemen with starting experience” rather than the version at hand of Notre Dame “needing to replace four starting linemen.” The former would have been technically accurate, and it still can be if altered to four linemen with 32 starts between them.

The moral to these differing storylines is the Irish return more experience along the offensive line than one might expect when they are sending four linemen into the NFL draft (April 29 - May 1), and no one knows the depths of that returning experience than those four linemen readying their professional aspirations. Before they each dashed 40 yards last week, they also offered some reviews of their replacements.

While no one would ever expect a former teammate to offer critical words, the details included in answers to open-ended questions convey some sincerity and legitimacy in the descriptions of Jarrett Patterson, Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons, among others.

Former left tackle Liam Eichenberg on his presumed replacement, rising senior Jarrett Patterson, who started 21 games at center in the last two seasons (Patterson is sidelined this spring with a foot injury, so his position switch is only assumed, though Eichenberg certainly did not use conditional verbs): “It will be easy for Jarrett. Football comes natural to him. First camp as a freshman, he was a left tackle behind me, and he was amazing. I think it will be like nothing ever happened. I don’t expect there to be a drop-off at all. It will be like I’m still there, it’ll be like Mike (McGlinchey) was still there, and I think Jarrett will be one of the next greats. He’s a great center, and I think him moving out to tackle will make people realize he’s a better player than most people think.”

Eichenberg on fifth-year Josh Lugg, with eight career starts split between right guard and right tackle: “Josh was our utility man. He stepped in, he can play any position. You can put him at tackle, guard or center, and he would do well. He’s a guy that we’ve had — we have four guys coming out this year. He’s been behind them and me at times. It’s just allowed him to develop even more. This is his opportunity now. He will start on the offensive line this year, there’s no doubt about that. He’s going to do very well, he’s going to be very successful, he’s a guy who understands his technique and fundamentals. I’m very excited for him, a guy who stuck it out, who would do anything and sacrifice anything for an offensive line, that’s the type of guy you’re getting.”

Former right guard Tommy Kraemer on fifth-year Dillan Gibbons and senior John Dirksen, two of the primary candidates to fill out the starting lineup, Gibbons with a start in Kraemer’s place last season: “Those guys are two awesome football players. They’re tough, gritty, physical, they can definitely do it. The Notre Dame offensive line will be getting two mature players in John and Dillan. Guys who care a lot about the program and care about improving in their craft.”

Eichenberg on sophomore Tosh Baker, getting a few first-team reps in practice: He has a great mindset. He works hard. For him, it’s just about getting strong in the offseason. He put in a lot of work this winter, so I’m excited to see how he looks. … It’s just strength for him. He moves well, is good with his hands, understands the playbook. It’s just going to be developing his overall strength. When he gets that, I think he’ll be a great player for Notre Dame.”

Former right tackle Robert Hainsey on the remaining offensive linemen in general: “They got some guys that are going to need to step up and be ready to play some big-time minutes that they weren’t used to playing, but I’m really excited to watch all those guys get their opportunity, because there are a lot of great players in that room, and it’s going to be fun to watch them battle it out for who’s going to play. I think the competition is going to bring the best out of everyone.”

Losing Aaron Banks to the draft, rather than a fifth season which would likely have been spent at left tackle, cost the offseason hype machine that chance to point out Notre Dame would return five starters, technically speaking (the fifth being junior center Zeke Correll, two career starts), but the Irish still do not lack experience. The offensive line’s limited stats to brag about are more a reflection of the four linemen heading to the NFL than of the linemen set for their fifth spring practice tomorrow.

Banks did consider a fifth year and a chance to move to left tackle from left guard, but a combination of former teammates’ input, most notably Sam Mustipher’s, and the departure of his best friends from the team led to his decision.

“Three of the guys I played with for the last three years were leaving, so I felt like it was my time to depart with them,” Banks said a week ago.

The original intention here was to mirror those quotes with the defensive versions, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah praising Drew White, with Nick McCloud highlighting junior Cam Hart, with Ade Ogundeji going on and on about fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho.

But let’s put those off for a day or two to instead focus on some in-depth and introspective words from former Irish defensive end Daelin Hayes. College football can be a hypocritical, self-indulgent, exploitive sport. But every once in a while, a player gets a chance to give a few genuine minutes in which he illustrates the redemptive value of the game.

To start his media availability before his pro day workouts, Hayes was asked to reflect on his fifth season. Keep in mind, Hayes would have used up his eligibility if he had played in one more game in 2019 before injuring his shoulder, a troublesome shoulder that interrupted three of his high school seasons. Returning to Notre Dame in 2020 had never been on his radar until then, and at that point, it was understandably felt as a misfortune. His reflection:

“This last year at Notre Dame was really why a 17-year-old kid makes a decision to attend a place like this. Full circle. When I made the decision to come to Notre Dame, it was not only for the football aspect but to be refined as a young man on the field, off the field and spiritually.

“The first goal I had when I stepped on campus was to become a captain, and I was able to achieve that. Another goal I had was to impact the community around me, and I was able to achieve that, as well. Then obviously the football aspect came full circle this year, as well.

“To be able to lead a group of men who, at no point throughout this year were we ever promised an opportunity to compete. We were stripped of the opportunity to really bond as a team, to have the coaching structure, the academic structure that we had grown accustomed to being at Notre Dame and throughout our time here. We were never really given any solid opportunity. We were never given a solid promise to be able to put all that on display. For guys to be able to buy in this year, the sacrifices that they made, the things that we stood for as an organization, to be able to impact the community and speak up for people whose voices have been oppressed, to lead a community on the field and continue to shine as a light, a beacon of hope for our entire community, our students, our faculty, the people in our community and our team, I think that it was really special.

“When I reflect on my time at Notre Dame, this is why I chose to come here. It was just a special year, I’m so thankful for it, I’m grateful for how things shook out this year because it really was a testament to our buy-in, our traits. Coach Kelly preaches to us to be smart, gritty, to have laser focus, to always have attention to detail and to have a great attitude, and our team really embodied that, it really showed.

“I’m just extremely thankful. I’m proud of the guys. I’m proud to be a part of this brotherhood. And I’m proud to have left that stamp at Notre Dame, to have left it better than when I found it as a 17-year-old kid.”

With junior running back Kendall Abdur-Rahman’s entry into the transfer portal, the Irish now have 88 scholarship players expected to be on the roster on Labor Day Eve. For this one season, Notre Dame can exceed the usual NCAA maximum of 85, but just by the two scholarships given to players using a year of eligibility only available due to the blanket waiver granted during the coronavirus pandemic. Defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and kicker Jonathan Doerer are the only two players fitting that distinction, meaning the Irish can roster 87 scholarship players when the season starts.

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