2020 Preview: Notre Dame Offensive Line Must Dominate
Notre Dame is a Top 10 team heading into the 2020 season, and if things go well the Fighting Irish could be a College Football Playoff contender. Being that kind of team requires production across the board, but a case could be made that big-time play from the offensive line is the number one priority for Notre Dame to play playoff caliber ball.
The Irish return all five starters from last season, and they also return a deep and talented depth chart behind the starters.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has received high accolades all offseason on both the unit and individual level. In order to maximize its potential as a program, the Notre Dame line must live up to the hype.
DYNAMIC TACKLE TANDEM
Notre Dame has a chance to have the nation’s best one-two punch at tackle this season. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg has been named a second-team preseason All-American by Lindy’s Sports, and multiple analysts project him to be a first-round NFL Draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Eichenberg finally started to show consistent play in the second half of the 2019 season, and he has a chance to become a dominant left tackle. The Ohio native did not allow a single sack in 2019, and he has the ability to be even more effective as a run blocker than what we’ve seen. If he does, Eichenberg will have a chance to compete for the honor of the nation’s best tackle not named Penei Sewell.
Eichenberg was the team’s best blocker in 2019, but that honor belong to right tackle Robert Hainsey in 2018. Hainsey was solid last season before going down with an injury in game eight, and he has not allowed a sack since game one of the 2018 season.
Hainsey is an outstanding pass blocker, but like Eichenberg he must become a more effective run blocker. He’s shown flashes of being that kind of player, and if he can finally tap into his full potential he’ll not only be a key part of the nation’s best tackle tandem, he has a chance to even challenge Eichenberg for the status of the best tackle on the Irish roster.
The starting tackles did not allow a single sack in 748 combined pass snaps in 2019 according to Pro Football Focus.
INTERIOR MUST IMPROVE
Notre Dame’s interior blockers were solid pass blockers in 2019, but their overall play wasn’t nearly good enough. When you break down the run game struggles, the erratic, and at times poor play of the interior blockers was a key factor. The group wasn’t nearly physical enough, and their tendency to step and catch defenders keeps the line from getting the kind of movement needed to be a dominant run team.
If the Notre Dame line is going to play to its potential the interior must get a lot better, especially in the run game. The hope is that line coach Jeff Quinn will make changes to the footwork and technique used in the run game, and that is where the addition to the staff of former Notre Dame star guard Chris Watt could be beneficial.
A key to the interior emerging as a force is veteran right guard Tommy Kraemer finally becoming a dominant player. No lineman on the roster arrived with the kind of hype and high prep ranking that Kraemer showed up with. A five-star player according to 247Sports, Kraemer was the starting right tackle on Notre Dame’s dominant 2017 line.
Since moving to guard, Kraemer has struggled to combine strong pass blocking and run blocking. At times his pass blocking looks great but he can’t get a push in the run game. At times he gets a push in the run game but gets out of position in the pass game. Now a three-year starter at guard, it’s time for Kraemer to finally become a consistently dominant player.
The tools are there, and if he can become the force in the run we expected him to be, and the force he flashed as a redshirt freshman in 2017, the line will have a chance to make huge strides on the ground in 2020.
Starting center Jarrett Patterson handled himself well in his first season as a starter. An athletic player that showed up as a left tackle, Patterson made a smooth transition to center last season. His snapping was surprisingly consistent and his pass blocking was strong, with Patterson not giving up a single sack in 2019 (according to PFF) and only allowing two hits on the quarterback.
The key for him in year two is to add the ability to thrive in the run game to his strong pass pro. Patterson was solid at times as a run blocker, but more often than not he struggled to get movement. If that improves in 2020, and if Kraemer also makes his needed strides, this duo could be outstanding.
POSITION BATTLE MUST RAGE AT LEFT GUARD
I don’t know if Notre Dame is going to allow a position battle to take place at left guard in 2020, but it would be smart for them to do so. Senior Aaron Banks returns as the starter at the position, and he’s made 19 straight starts.
The issue is Banks has been quite erratic, and he’s coming off a foot injury that would have kept him out of the entire spring had it not been canceled. Banks has the talent to be a great guard, but his technique has been far too spotty and his consistency from an execution standpoint is an issue. Combine that with him suffering a broken foot and there are questions about just how good he’ll be in 2020.
On top of that, classmate Joshua Lugg performed quite well at right tackle when he stepped in for an injured Hainsey. Lugg is a big and powerful player with plenty of talent, and his performance last season earned him the right to battle for a starting job. He’s not going to be able to challenge Hainsey or Eichenberg, assuming they stay healthy, and he has played guard in the past.
An ideal situation for Notre Dame would be that Kraemer, Banks and Lugg all step up and tap into their full potential. Should that happen, developing a nice three-man rotation inside could do wonders for the Notre Dame line. Lugg being able to play both guard spots would allow him to spell Banks and Kraemer, and if he’s playing at a high level he could stay in the game and they can ride the hot hand.
Having Lugg in a rotation would allow all three big men to take some snaps off their legs each week, which would make them all much fresher when we get to November. That could result in the Irish run game really hitting its stride when it matters most, which is during a November stretch in which the Irish play Clemson, Louisville and USC.
DEPTH MUST BE DEVELOPED
Notre Dame has several talented young players, but fall camp needs to be a time when young players emerge and fill out the two-deep with quality play. Notre Dame will need young players like Andrew Kristofic, Quinn Carroll, John Dirksen, Zeke Correll and others to provide confidence in them should their number be called this season.
On top of that, Eichenberg, Hainsey and Kraemer are all gone after 2020, and a big season from Banks or Lugg could result in them leaving as well. Notre Dame will have at least three open spots in 2021, and how well the young players handle their backup roles in 2020 will impact who has the best chance to step into those starting roles in 2021.
PREVIOUS POSITION PREVIEWS
Be sure to stay locked into Irish Breakdown all the time!