Notre Dame has added a second graduate transfer this offseason by landing Marshall guard Cain Madden, who was a Walter Camp second team All-American in 2020. Madden started over 30 games for the Thundering Herd, so the Irish line certainly gets an immediate boost in experience.
This pickup is an intriguing one that can be looked at in many ways, and one that could have an impact on multiple positions. I will follow up this article with another that breaks down what I see in Madden as a player, but for now let's first look at the depth chart impact for this pickup.
Marshall, a native of South Webster, Ohio, brings 31 career starts to the Irish roster. Yes, it was in Conference USA, but experience is experience, and Madden has been through many battles the last three seasons.
At the very least he gives Notre Dame a veteran player that can be a good example for the younger, arguably more talented players on the roster. Landing Marshall also gives Notre Dame a greater margin for error inside. There's a debate to be had about how good he actually is, but even if he's just a solid, experienced player he gives the line protection should the younger players simply not be ready mentally or technically early in the 2021 season.
That means if true freshman Rocco Spindler is starting for Notre Dame in 2021 it's truly about him just being too good not to play and it's not about other players on the roster not being ready. Madden gives you a floor at that position that you can live with against most teams on the schedule, and if Spindler ends up starting (barring injury) it means the much-higher upside freshmen is simply too good not to play, and that he's proven to be mentally, technically and physically ready to play at a high level.
IS THIS MOVE JUST ABOUT GUARD?
How the addition of Madden impacts the entire depth chart is where this thing gets very interesting. Could this move be a prequel to Jarrett Patterson moving back to center? Could it end up resulting Patterson moving out to tackle? Could it simply just be about adding competition to the guard position?
All three scenarios have some plausibility to them. Let's assume for a second that Madden and Spindler lock down one guard position, the most easy to see scenario is that the Irish now have their depth chart set at all five positions. Freshman Blake Fisher and fifth-year senior Joshua Lugg will man the tackle spots, Patterson will play one guard spot and Madden/Spindler will play the other.
Then it's about which side do they play. Madden was a right guard at Marshall and Patterson has not taken any guard snaps after missing out on the spring while recovering from the foot injury he suffered late in the 2021 season. It would make a lot of sense to leave Madden at his more comfortable right guard spot and move Patterson to the left side. It would, or perhaps it should, also necessitate a move of Spindler to the right side after he played on the left side during the spring.
Of course, there's also the plausible scenario of Madden taking over the right guard spot, Spindler and junior Andrew Kristofic continuing to battle for the guard spot, and Patterson moving back to center, which pushes Zeke Correll out of the lineup. Or perhaps it would then be Spindler and Correll battling for a spot at guard.
I like Correll being at center and hope this scenario isn't being considered, but with Patterson's experience at the position it has to at least be considered a possibility.
Another scenario could be that Madden is at guard, where he would battle with Spindler and Kristofic, and Lugg slides inside to guard. That would thrust Patterson outside to tackle.
The point of all this? Landing Madden, if he's as good as many think he is, gives the Irish staff a lot of options it didn't necessarily have before. At the very least it gives them the same options, but now we are talking about more experienced players being in the battle for those spots.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE 2019 OL CLASS
Notre Dame's 2019 offensive line class was considered one of the nation's best, but for whatever reason the class hasn't panned out. The group is heading into their junior seasons, and only Correll has stepped into the starting lineup, and that was as an injury replacement. Past classes like the 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017 all had far more starts than that by the end of their second seasons.
Part of that is the fact Notre Dame had so many older, talented players in the starting lineup. Every starter for Notre Dame in 2020 was older and in the system longer than the 2019 class, which is comprised of Correll, Kristofic and Quinn Carroll. Correll and Kristofic were Top 100 recruits and Kristofic was a Top 200 national recruit.
Notre Dame's staff put a pair of true freshmen ahead of Kristofic and Carroll about a week into their first spring, which the first bad sign for that duo, as well as senior John Dirksen. The addition of Madden is another clear sign that the staff doesn't believe players like Kristofic and Carroll are in position to compete for starting jobs.
The immediate response from many will be, "No, that's not true, this just adds depth." The fact is adding depth means fewer reps for those players. You now have one more player on the depth chart, and we can all agree that Madden, at the very least, starts the spring off in a battle for a starting role. So instead of reps at one guard spot being split between two players (Spindler, Kristofic or Carroll) they will now be split between three, which means one of Kristofic or Carroll is completely out of the mix.
Anyone that's been responsible for coaching up a unit in the fall knows you aren't going to split OL reps between three players for very long, which means the other junior who is removed initially will quickly get displaced.
The question then becomes is this more of an indictment on them, or is it more of an indictment on the inability of the current line coach - Jeff Quinn - to develop those younger players. The fact is Fisher and Spindler stepping into the lineup so soon says more about their talent than any development being done at Notre Dame.
There's no way to really quantify this, but it certainly raises questions about the future of the offensive line. Even if Madden pans out and is everything Notre Dame hopes he can be, he will be gone after the 2021 season, as will Lugg, and it's likely that Patterson also leaves, which means in 2022 we will be back to this place, and development will once again be a focal point.
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