Notre Dame’s offensive line comes into focus thanks to early-enrolled duo and a fifth-year utility man
A week ago, Brian Kelly sowed some doubt about Notre Dame’s projected 2021 offensive line, questioning whether rising junior Zeke Correll would be the Irish starter at center and opening the door for all sorts of alignment changes if Correll did indeed fall off the top-line of the depth chart. But things can change quickly in spring, a sound bite more often an overreaction to one practice or a piece of coaching motivation than it is an actual development.
A week later, Kelly granted Correll the starting center role as he mused about other positions, and suddenly Notre Dame’s offensive line may be coming into focus.
Fifth-year former utility man Josh Lugg has settled in at tackle, per Kelly, possibly moving senior Jarrett Patterson from a presumed relocation at tackle to instead a year at guard, all after starting at center for two seasons.
“I think [Lugg] feels most comfortable at the tackle position, that’s kind of where we have settled in our mind, as well,” Kelly said Saturday. “Because of where we think the other pieces — this was always going to be how the other pieces were going to fall in line to see what the ultimate position was going to end up being for Josh. We were going to use a veteran player where he fit the best for us, because we knew that we were going to go with a couple of guys that weren’t playing as much or hadn’t been playing as much.”
Which is to say, youngsters’ fits would determine Lugg’s destination, the veteran more positionally flexible than the neophytes, and when Kelly said those would be guys that had not played much, he was actually overselling their inexperience. His next sentence focused on a pair of early-enrolled freshmen that could not have received more praise this weekend, or all spring, for that matter.
The usual trope to describe any impressive work from early-enrolled freshmen is that “they should have prom next weekend, but instead ...” and Lugg used that exact phrasing, but while that may not be literally true this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, that reality actually makes the universal praise of Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher that much more impressive.
“What I’m surprised with (this spring) is the ability of the mid-year (enrollees), the guys that come in from high school and have to adapt through COVID and academics and weight training and then come out here and compete,” Kelly said. “In some instances, that has surprised me that they can do it at a high level. We’ve got some freshmen that are vying for playing time in their first year here and I find that not surprising, but to be pretty impressive.”
There may be others (receiver Lorenzo Styles comes to mind), but Spindler and Fisher are clearly pushing for playing time, if not for starting roles. A week ago Kelly tried to slow the understandable assumptions created by seeing the two work with the first-team in the practice footage provided by Notre Dame; this weekend, Kelly acknowledged the increasing likelihood behind those snaps.
“We’ve been playing a lot with Fisher and Spindler on one side, and because of that, it’s solidified the guard and tackle position.”
It is hard to fathom the Irish start two freshmen on one side of the offensive line — and sophomore Tosh Baker is still part of the tackle competition with Fisher — but that is the possibility Kelly furthered. In that scenario, it would be Fisher at tackle and Spindler at guard on one side of the line, presumably the left, with Lugg at tackle and Patterson at guard on the other side and Correll obviously in the middle.
As hard as it is to fathom, Spindler and Fisher have apparently impressed enough already to spark draft speculation. Yes, a pair of high school senior offensive linemen are playing so well as to elicit professional prospects conversation amid upperclassmen coming off a Playoff berth.
“Rocco and Blake, they’re going to be a force,” fifth-year defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “I can see both of them really being drafted really high. My praise goes to them. They’re just young kids that came in and are mature and know how to work. They don’t complain. They just put their heads down and get to work.”
It sounds like hyperbole, but then fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish offers similar, blunter praise.
“These guys are good,” Hinish said. “Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher are damn good. They’re really good offensive linemen and they’re going to be really good here. They’re the best two freshman offensive linemen that I’ve seen or have gone against.”
Keep in mind, Hinish arrived at Notre Dame with the last offensive lineman to start as a freshman, Robert Hainsey. He may not be the singular freshman talent in recent history — one has to assume that was Quenton Nelson even if he did not play in 2014 — but Hinish has seen quality freshman offensive line play, and now he has apparently seen even better than that.
Spindler and Fisher are not alone, as Kelly mentioned Baker still competing at tackle before mentioning sophomore tackle Michael Carmody, junior tackle Andrew Kristofic, senior guard John Dirksen and fifth-year guard Dillan Gibbons as all in the mix. But no one received lauding like Spindler and Fisher.
All of which pushes Lugg to tackle, which is his preference, particularly while Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg have been around campus in recent weeks, giving Lugg additional resources from which to pick advice.
“I feel like I’m moving a lot better, especially from last year, dropping down some weight,” he said. “Working with Liam and Robert around, working with them in the film room, doing some extra stuff. Being able to move and get my hands on you, use my length outside and also be able to communicate my defense to the rest of the offensive line.”
Between Lugg and those former linemen still around, by no means are Spindler and Fisher working without proper guidance. The photo atop this article was chosen for a reason, showing Eichenberg chatting with Spindler just this weekend.
The rave reviews sound too good to be true and too universal to be authentic, so it must be remembered Spindler and Fisher are part of an offensive line trying to replace four presumptive NFL draft picks, including three All-Americans. No matter how good the early-enrolled freshmen have been in 10 spring practices, they will not match the 2020 work of Eichenberg, Hainsey, Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks.