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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning four starters and a familiar coach

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Blake Fisher #54 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish blocks Kody Walterscheid #96 of the Oklahoma State University Cowboys during the Play Station Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

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As Notre Dame returns three starters this spring along its offensive line and, if being generous, five starters this fall, much of the conversation will focus on the return of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. He brings a unique dynamic, a coach that only somewhat ever left the Irish, despite literally leaving four years ago.

Hiestand now takes over a unit that touts 79 returning starts heading into 2022, but 34 of those will not be available this spring.

The Irish lost only Cain Madden, the Marshall transfer, from contributing pieces in 2021. Yet, Notre Dame’s offensive line will hardly look like it did last season.

Of the five players who started at Florida State to open the season, it is likely none will begin this spring as the starter at the same position. Rising sophomore Blake Fisher is expected to move to right tackle from left tackle after a Labor Day Eve meniscus tear cost him both his starting spot and the next 11-plus games. In his place, classmate Joe Alt earned freshman All-American honors to establish himself at left tackle.

With Fisher moving to right tackle, sixth-year Josh Lugg will need a new position, most likely right guard. At left guard, rising senior Andrew Kristrofic overtook classmate Zeke Correll as 2021 unfolded, the Irish seeking more size on the interior to steady what was an inconsistent showing through the season’s first half.

That leaves center, the position of consistency, but also the one suddenly unmanned this spring after fifth-year Jarrett Patterson tore his pectoral a couple weeks ago.

All in all, Notre Dame no longer is anywhere near where it was along the offensive line, even if nearly all the same pieces make up the whole. The one thing that may be the same, oddly, is Hiestand.

As the line struggled in September and early October, reports indicated Hiestand was working with some of the veterans on the line in an unofficial capacity, one perhaps without Brian Kelly’s blessing. Kelly pushed back against that, insisting Hiestand’s work came in the offseason when Irish staffers were prohibited from working with players. Regardless of the timing, the point stood: Hiestand was still involved.

“I never really stopped (coaching),” he said last month. “I was always interacting with the former players and sending them notes and studying what they were doing and keeping up on football. From that standpoint, I always kind of stayed connected to it.”

An offensive line has 65 starts in a season. With that in mind …

Jarrett Patterson: 13 starts at center.Cain Madden: 13 starts at right guard.Josh Lugg: 12 starts at right tackle.Joe Alt: 8 starts at left tackle, 13 games.Andrew Kristofic: 7 starts at left guard, 13 games.Zeke Correll: 6 starts at left guard, 9 games.Tosh Baker: 2 starts at left tackle, 11 games.Michael Carmody: 2 starts at left tackle, 10 games.Blake Fisher: 2 starts, one at each left and right tackle, 2 games.Rocco Spindler: 2 games.

Patterson’s injury throws a wrinkle into Hiestand’s spring. It could have been a month of working with a known and somewhat proven starting five. Now he must weigh disrupting those other four to find the best backup option at center, likely either Kristofic or Correll though rising sophomore Pat Coogan will warrant a look, as well.

Fisher and Alt may bounce back and forth between left and right tackle for a moment, but given they were part of a line that gave up two sacks on 70 dropbacks to the best sacking front in the country in the Fiesta Bowl, the status quo of Fisher at right and Alt at left may hold the most logic. (At top, Fisher in the Fiesta Bowl, his return from that meniscus injury.)

From there, the Irish can wonder about the alignment of the entire second string, but that is hardly a wonder worth losing sleep over. Whether Baker is the No. 2 tackle on the left side or right side, with Carmody the other, is unlikely to matter in Hiestand’s mind. He is more likely to identify the No. 3 tackle overall and entrust that individual with the support role on both sides. At least, that was his preferred method half a decade ago. (Based solely on the fact that Carmody got first chance at starting at left tackle last year, presume he has pole position.)

In that regard, Hiestand enjoys a bounty of riches. Five of his linemen have started at tackle. Three have started at guard. He should have a two-time captain at center, presuming Patterson’s recovery goes as smoothly as expected. And Hiestand also has eight linemen with four years of eligibility remaining, with six of them on hand this spring.

“I like the balance, I like that there’s a mixture of experience and youth,” Hiestand said. “Anytime you have too much of one or the other, it tends to be more of a challenge.”

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