Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning bookend tackles and a three-year starter at center
When Brent Pry arrived at Virginia Tech last offseason, the new Hokies head coach understood he had a deep hole to climb out of if he wanted to return Blacksburg to ACC contention. Pry set out to hire coaches who would stick around and help with that climb, including offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.
One season later, Rudolph is now preparing for Notre Dame’s spring practices beginning March 22. That departure is not a reflection of Rudolph dismissing his original intentions, but rather of how alluring the Irish offensive line coaching job was after Harry Hiestand retired following Tommy Rees’s departure for Alabama.
Notre Dame is an appealing coaching gig in a vacuum, the Irish offensive line position duties just as much so. But the 2023 possibilities attracted a few of the better line coaches in the country, given two future first-round draft picks should start at the tackle spots and Zeke Correll will start at center for a third season. Add in a plethora of highly-sought former recruits on the depth chart, and Notre Dame’s offensive line should make nearly any coach look good.
On top of all that, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman sold Rudolph with his favorite catchphrase.
“That’s not always in fashion to say, ‘This is an O-line driven place and the O-line sets the tone,’” Rudolph said earlier this month of his interview conversations with Freeman. “He took a lot of pride in saying it and said it in a few of the meetings we had. That hits deep to me.
“It’s how I grew up when I played. I felt that responsibility as a player. It really hit home for me.”
The opportunity to lean into the offensive line at Notre Dame was simply too much for Rudolph to turn down to stay at Virginia Tech.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The Irish lost two captains, two multi-year starters, two massive human beings in guards Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg. Their combined 79 starts is not simply a stat in the rearview mirror.
Here is a 2023 prediction: When Notre Dame struggles to run through Central Michigan on Sept. 16, the fanbase’s consternation will be met with this space repeating Lugg’s accurate philosophizing a year ago about how an offensive line needs some time to coalesce. In each of the last three seasons, that was an Irish need, and in each of the last three seasons, that became an Irish reality.
In 2022, it was because Notre Dame was working in a pair of green tackles. In 2023, it will be because the Irish are finding their footing with a pair of green guards.
Joe Alt (two years of eligibility remaining entering the 2023 season): 13 starts at left tackleJarrett Patterson: 12 starts at left guardAndrew Kristofic (two years of eligibility remaining): 11 games, started the season opener at left guard in place of PattersonZeke Correll (two years): 13 starts at centerJosh Lugg: 13 starts at right guardBlake Fisher (three years): 13 starts at right tackle
Tosh Baker (two years): 13 gamesRocco Spindler (three years): 12 gamesMichael Carmody (two years): 1 game
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Those three starters are established. It would take injury to change them.
Alt (pictured at top) will be a preseason All-American at left tackle and likely first-round draft pick 13 months from now.Correll will start for a third season at center and about halfway through the year the Irish will start pondering if they should talk him into a sixth collegiate year in 2024.Fisher will start at right tackle and could join Alt in the NFL draft with a strong year. While that may panic Notre Dame fans, a season producing a pair of first-round tackles should be a season with some substantial successes in the fall, as well.
But those two guard spots will lead to much springtime and preseason wonder. Rudolph does not know who will emerge, obviously, but he indicated he will take the same approach that Hiestand did and find his best five players first, their positions second.
“You’d be selling the group short if you weren’t trying to find the best five,” Rudolph said. “You have to do that with some vision of how the whole group fits together.
“There might be someone who is competing their tail off, and they might back up [Alt] or back up [Correll], but if they play in a way this spring where you see they’re one of those five (best), you can easily move them to a position and have them ready in fall camp and all summer to take that over.”
The initial candidates should be rising junior Rocco Spindler, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic and perhaps rising sophomore Billy Schrauth. Kristofic has starting experience, most notably stepping in at left guard for the second half of the 2021 season, with much success. The other two are unknowns since high-profile recruitments.
For the moment, presume the starting guards come from that trio. The player to nominally come up short should still anticipate playing in 2023. Notre Dame’s offensive line health in 2022 was absurd. Aside from Patterson suffering a foot injury in August, no offensive lineman endured notable injury.
That may have been karmic justice for the historical string of injuries at left tackle in 2021, needing four underclassmen to take their knocks just to get through the first half of the season, but it was still the first time since 2017 the Irish enjoyed such fortune up front, needing at least two reserves in each of the four intervening seasons.
It would be irrational to expect such luck again, giving tangible motivation to the three other rising sophomores as well as a pair of rising juniors, none of whom have seen the field yet.
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FUTURE DEPTHHiestand pulled in a total of 10 offensive linemen in the last two classes, though Joey Tanona was already forced into retirement due to a concussion suffered in a car accident last winter. Nonetheless, those nine underclassmen present Rudolph plenty of options moving forward, all notable recruits, part of the luxury of taking this job.