Notre Dame Has Strong Options At Center, But Questions Remains

It remains to be seen how Notre Dame will replace Jarrett Patterson, but there are at least three good options
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Notre Dame will be without starting center Jarrett Patterson for the remainder of the 2020 season after he suffered a foot injury during the team’s 45-31 victory over Boston College. Losing Patterson is certainly a blow for the Irish line, which has been the backbone of the offense this season.

Losing your center has an impact that goes beyond his blocking ability or talent, it also takes away the player responsible for many of the line calls. From a skill position standpoint, losing your center is similar to losing your quarterback, whereas losing a guard or tackle is more like losing a wideout or running back. It’s a loss, but one of those positions touches the ball every play and is responsible for being a communication leader.

Notre Dame is in position, however, to overcome the loss. Patterson had been putting together a quality season, but part of what made the line so good this season was the fact the unit played so well as a whole. Notre Dame has an outstanding tackle tandem in Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey, and guards Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer are experienced and talented.

The talent at guard is such that whatever Notre Dame does at center, it has the size, talent and veteran experience at guard to help ease the burden for Patterson’s replacement. Notre Dame can alter its blocking schemes if need be, but the more important aide to the new center is helping with communication.

After doing some digging and thinking through the current roster there are three possible options that could work. Below I give those three options and give the positives and negatives of each.

1. Insert Zeke Correll Into The Starting Lineup — The most obvious solution would be to move backup center Zeke Correll into the starting lineup. Correll was one of the nation’s best interior offensive line recruits in the 2019 class, and he was a key part of Notre Dame’s outstanding line haul that year.

Correll is a bit undersized (6-3, 295) and has limited experience, having played just 46 snaps in his first two seasons according to Pro Football Focus. He played well in extensive action against Pitt, but he also looked like a young player still finding his way. I was impressed with how effectively he handled Pitt’s line games, with one exception.

The big drawback against Correll stepping into the lineup is the experience aspect. When you have a veteran unit like Notre Dame possesses you’d prefer to have a veteran alongside them, but the experience at guard and tackle actually would make it easier to transition a younger player into the lineup.

What intrigues me about Correll stepping into the lineup is it could have just as much of an impact on the future as it could on the present. Notre Dame is 8-0 and is in position to play for a national championship, so whatever move it makes at center needs to be first geared towards gives the line the best chance to keep playing championship football.

It would not surprise me to see the staff give Correll some extra work the next two weeks to see if he can seize the job. If he does that and takes over the center role this season it could make the offseason very interesting. Notre Dame will lose both of its tackles (Eichenberg, Hainsey) this offseason, and Kraemer is also likely done after this season. It would be a surprise if any of those three veterans returned next season, and there’s a chance Banks could also leave.

Assuming Banks stays, that’s still three very important losses up front. If Correll steps into the lineup and handles himself well it gives line coach Jeff Quinn some intriguing possibilities for next season. Correll taking over the center position allows Patterson to move outside, either to guard or tackle. Remember, Patterson was originally recruited to play tackle, but he moved to center in order to get him into the lineup. Patterson’s skillset could thrive at guard or tackle, and if Correll shows out in the final five games (hopefully six) of the season moving Patterson to fill the void left by Eichenberg, Hainsey or Kraemer would be a much easier decision to make.

2. Move Joshua Lugg To Center Full-Time — Based on some intel I’ve gathered, it appears moving sixth-man Joshua Lugg to center might be the first option. Lugg has cross-trained at center in the past, so this would not be a brand new thing for him, and he has been the line’s sixth man when healthy. It could do that while also giving Correll some extra work to see if he’s ready to play, and whoever gets the most comfortable in the rotation the fastest wins the job.

With Notre Dame’s preference for playing veterans in key positions on offense, there would likely have to be a clear gap between Correll and Lugg for the younger player to get the nod. If Lugg gets comfortable quickly I would expect him to get the first crack at starting at center against North Carolina on the 27th.

Lugg made five starts at right tackle last season and handled himself well. The senior has battled the injury bug for much of this season, but he appears to be getting back to full strength.

I have two concerns about Lugg playing at center. The first is his temperament, as Lugg has shown a habit of playing a bit out of control at times. A center needs to be physical but also cerebral, something Patterson thrives at and something that made past centers like Sam Mustipher and Nick Martin so effective. Lugg hasn’t shown that during his career.

The other concern is more practical, and that is the fact Lugg is 6-7 and starting quarterback Ian Book is 6-0. A lineman’s height isn’t an issue for the quarterback at tackle and isn’t much of an issue at guard, but it can be more problematic for a center, even in a shotgun based offense.

If Book doesn’t have a problem with it and Lugg can play with the right temperament then this option could work, and it would give the Irish a very big and physical group up the middle.

3. Move Robert Hainsey To Center And Lugg To Right Tackle — The third and most unlikely option would be cross-training and then ultimately moving right tackle Robert Hainsey to center. Hainsey is likely going to be an interior player at the next level, so for him personally this would be an ideal situation to put together tape of him playing inside.

For Notre Dame, of course, what’s best for Hainsey isn’t going to be considered, it’s going to be about putting the best group of five on the field.

The initial concern about moving Hainsey is you “weaken” two positions in that Hainsey likely won’t be as good as Patterson and Lugg isn’t as good at right tackle as Hainsey. But that’s not really how this should be looked at, it needs to be viewed in light of what group of five gives the Irish the best chance at thriving.

Hainsey would give the offense a center that knows the playbook and the calls better than any other center on the roster. His body type is perfect for the inside, and he’s quick enough off the snap to handle the quick inside movements and he is effective when working to the second level.

As I stated above, Lugg started five games at right tackle last season and he played well. Hainsey at center would be the best fit in regards to having an experienced veteran inside that can handle all the line calls, and you’d have an experienced and physical player at right tackle.

Would two positions be as good as they were when Notre Dame started the BC game? No.

Would Notre Dame still have five talented and experienced players at positions where the line could continue thriving? Yeah, I think so.

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