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Where Notre Dame was and is: Offensive line

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 29: Ian Book #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish speaks to his line in the first half against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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Returning 55 starts among four starters and five more from a veteran utilityman is a starting point most offensive lines would be envious of. All that aside, though, Notre Dame entered the spring without any idea who its center would be after All-American and three-year starter Sam Mustipher ran out of eligibility.

At least, that was how it looked from the outside.

The wonderings at center made sense. Mustipher had been a mainstay at the pivot point for so long, one highly-touted center-specific recruit had already transferred early in his Irish career (Parker Boudreaux in the summer of 2017). There was neither apparent depth nor experience on the roster with Mustipher’s collegiate career ending.

Entering the spring, the position competition was expected to include fifth-year Trevor Ruhland, a spot substitute across all three interior positions last year, sophomore Luke Jones and possibly even early-enrolled freshman Zeke Correll. With Ruhland sidelined for the spring with a shoulder injury, the young pair would have plenty of chances to prove themselves.

Or not. Enter sophomore Jarrett Patterson, who appeared in three games last season at left tackle late in blowout victories. In the winter, Notre Dame committed to moving Patterson to center, and there was no hesitation to it, no half-measure.

“Jarrett was one of our best o-lineman last year,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said during the first week of spring practice. “If he had to go into a game, I would have had no concerns with him. He’s a young man, very athletic, very mature for his young age.”

By wholeheartedly committing to moving Patterson to center from the outset, rather than labeling it as an experiment or a trial, the Irish solidified their line right away. Senior Liam Eichenberg will start at left tackle for a second season. Junior Aaron Banks will pick up at left guard after starting there in 2018’s final six games. Senior Tommy Kraemer will be at right guard for a second year, with Ruhland still around to spell him if Kraemer struggles. And junior Robert Hainsey will spend a third season at right tackle.

“I can’t really say one person hasn’t gotten better, which is a great thing,” Long said in the last week of spring practice. “Their physicality, their get-off, just their overall knowledge and experience of the offense has been really good to see and really consistent level week-in and week-out during spring ball.

“They’re going against a pretty good front, too, and that makes you excited, to finally have a veteran group, guys who played a lot.

“You add Jarrett Patterson, who is as solid as they come in that group, builds some excitement for the offense, for me at least.”

The quality of that defensive front, specifically its ends, must be remembered when considering how the offensive line fared in the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. The defense recorded 15 “sacks,” numbers inflated by the exhibition’s design. Even with the whistle-inclined red jerseys on the quarterbacks, only five of those sacks came against the first-string offensive line, and two of those were with sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec struggling to get rid of the ball in general. Those are not reflective of what Notre Dame’s offensive line may be capable.

“I thought by-in-large, they did a pretty good job, gave [senior quarterback Ian Book] a chance to get the ball out,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the spring finale. “[The defense] did bring pressure, too, obviously, and forced a quarterback to really manage his pocket, but I thought all in all they looked pretty good up front.”

What the offensive line should be capable of depends on Patterson’s ability to turn solid practice showings into contributions in games, on Eichenberg’s continued development in his second year as a starter, and on the right-side tandem looking like the veterans they are. Kraemer becoming lighter on his feet should aid that cause, as should Hainsey (theoretically) avoiding another preseason hamstring injury.

It will also depend on depth, because at some point an offensive lineman will get hurt. Maybe another Hainsey hamstring issue, maybe a sprained ankle somewhere, maybe simply a lost helmet. By season’s end, junior Josh Lugg will hear his name called.

“We played six guys all last year,” Kelly said. “Josh Lugg is going to be our Swiss Army Knife, if you will. Probably a bad analogy, but he can play center, he can play guard, he can play tackle for us.”

Lugg might not be the answer at tackle — it is more likely Banks would move to tackle if needed and Lugg then fill in at guard — but he would still be a part of the solution, with a presumed-healthy-in-the-fall Ruhland around for emergency situations.

No one new is coming, because they all arrived early this spring. Correll was joined by tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic, and guard John Olmstead. With that young quartet, the Irish have 14 scholarship offensive linemen after Jones’ pending transfer. For that matter, all but Ruhland have multiple years of eligibility remaining.

Yes, it is quite possible — frankly, likely, as long as Hainsey does not declare for the NFL draft after just three collegiate seasons — Notre Dame returns its starting offensive line intact in 2020.

RELATED READING: Luke Jones’ transfer cuts into Notre Dame’s options at centerNotre Dame gets the letter Quinn CarrollNotre Dame gets the letter: Zeke CorrellNotre Dame gets the letter: Andrew KristoficNotre Dame gets the letter: John Olmstead

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