Notre Dame must replace four starting offensive linemen next season, and the right tackle spot is one of the open positions. The Fighting Irish must not only find a replacement for what was lost at right tackle from a blocking standpoint, it must also fill a huge leadership void.
We continue our replace and reload series by looking at what was lost, and what returns at right tackle.
WHAT WAS LOST
Notre Dame must replace right tackle Robert Hainsey, who started parts of four seasons for the Irish. The veteran finished his career with 37 starts, and he was about as steady of a player as you will see outside. Hainsey wasn't the biggest player and he wasn't a blocker that would rack up the punishing highlight reel blocks. He was a blocker that just did his job snap after snap, and he did it well.
Replacing that level of consistency will be challenging enough, but Hainsey was also a two-time captain, and his on and off the field leadership will be incredibly hard to replace. There was a lot that Hainsey did behind the scenes to make sure the offensive line was putting in the work needed to dominate, getting the help it needed to play like an elite group, and he played a big role in making sure the linemen held themselves to a high standard.
Hainsey showed the younger blockers what it meant to conduct themselves like Notre Dame student-athletes, and the hope for Notre Dame is that the lessons took.
PATTERSON DOMINO MUST FALL FIRST
For me, the biggest question that must be answered when talking about the offensive line is where does Jarrett Patterson play. Recruited as a tackle, Patterson started 21 straight games at center before going down with a season-ending injury against Boston College this past season.
With four spots open, Notre Dame absolutely must figure out where it is going to play its best returning lineman. Yes, it would be easy to slide him back in at center, but there are two reasons that must be rethought. First, Patterson isn't a natural center and could thrive at tackle and guard. By natural center I'm referring to the fact he isn't a center by trade, and the reason he was moved there in the first place was to find a way to get him on the field in 2019.
Now, Notre Dame has several young players that are set to step into the lineup, and it must figure out what the best five-man group is, and part of that is getting younger players in positions where their game is best suited.
That is the second reason to consider moving Patterson, and that is to open up a spot for Zeke Correll. Would it be better to move Patterson, who can thrive at guard or tackle, to another position, where his experience and knowledge of the offense would allow him to make a fast transition, or to move a young and still developing player like Correll somewhere else?
Just keeping Patterson and Correll at center seems like a bad idea, as it is ensures that a player who has a legit chance to be one of the five most talented blockers is locked into being a backup.
Patterson could be the answer at left tackle, and if he is that couple open up additional competitors for the right tackle position. If the staff is confident in a younger player stepping into the left tackle role, it could easily move Patterson to right tackle, or it could move him to guard.
When Hainsey went down with a season-ending injury in 2019, then junior Joshua Lugg stepped into the starting lineup for the final five games, and he played well. Lugg didn't allow a single sack in those five games, and according to Pro Football Focus he allowed just one total hit on the quarterback in those five games.
This past season, Lugg started one game at right guard (North Carolina) and two games at center (Syracuse, Clemson). One thing is for sure, Lugg is not a center. He has tools that fit well at guard, but the best we've seen him play during his career was at right tackle. Lugg is a strong young player and he's incredibly long, which allows him to still make edge blocks in the pass game even if he gets beat initially.
It would make a lot of sense for Notre Dame to put Patterson at left tackle and insert Lugg into the right tackle role, which would mean its two most experienced players are securing the outside of the line.
The only reason to not go with that alignment is if a younger tackle is simply too good to keep off the field, but that player wouldn't be as good at guard, a position we know Lugg could play.
Lugg is a talented player, but he has always been young for his age, and he's needed some seasoning as a player, on and off the field. He seems to finally be making the needed maturity jumps to be in position to become a leader up front. When he's on his game he's quite good, and he has the tools to step into the starting lineup at either tackle or guard and solidifying that position.
Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees need to figure out where Lugg is needed most and move him there immediately, and then leave him there. Lugg has moved around so much he hasn't really found a true home yet. The staff needs to allow him to finally find that home, and it wouldn't be a surprise if it was at right tackle.
YOUNG PLAYERS MUST STEP UP
A big part of the discussion on where to play Patterson and Lugg is the confidence level the coaching staff has, or doesn't have, in the younger offensive tackles. I'm thinking about Andrew Kristofic, Quinn Carroll and Tosh Baker.
All three are talented and were highly ranked players. I'd be a bit surprised if one of them isn't in the starting lineup in 2021, but the question is will that be at tackle, or will it be with one of them moving inside.
If Notre Dame keeps Patterson at center, or if it moves him to guard, it almost ensures at least one of these young players steps into the starting lineup. If the staff decides it want to solidify the middle of the line first, and keep Correll at center and puts Patterson and Lugg at the guard spots, it would obviously open up two starting spots. That would also be true if the staff kept Patterson at center and went with veterans Lugg and Dillan Gibbons at guard.
I'd be quite surprised if at least one of the veterans (Patterson, Lugg) doesn't move to tackle.
Kristofic has been a backup at both right and left tackle in his career, and he would certainly go into the spring with a chance to earn a starting role at one of those two spots. Kristofic also has the skillset and size that would allow him to make a smooth transition inside to guard if the staff decides to go with the veterans outside. The only question then would be could he pick guard up fast enough to earn a starting role and play at a high level.
I expect Kristofic to make some noise somewhere this spring, especially if he has a big winter in the weight room, something that is needed for him to take his game to the next level.
Carroll came to Notre Dame with one of the best recruiting profiles, but a severe knee injury cost him his entire freshman season. When he got his first career action in 2020 he looked good when blocking down inside, but he lumbered when working to the outside, especially in pass protection.
Of course, Carroll is just one year removed from that devastating knee injury, so I doubt he was at full strength or back to full speed. He'll need to be at full speed this spring if he's going to have a chance to be good enough in pass protection to stay at tackle. If what we saw in his limited action this season is who he is athletically, Carroll will need to eventually move inside to guard.
Baker needs to keep adding girth and a lot of weight room strength, but he's incredibly talented. He played just seven snaps this season, so we don't really know where he is in his physical development. If Patterson moves to left tackle the staff has two options behind that. One is to keep Baker at left tackle to groom behind Patterson. Two is to move Baker to right tackle, give him a chance to win that job, and either start him if he wins the job or move him back to left tackle to groom behind Patterson if he doesn't win the job.
1. Where does Patterson play - Where Patterson moves is going to have an impact on who plays at right tackle, even if he isn't the player that ultimately moves out there. Once the decision is made on where he plays the rest of the lineup can fall into place.
2. Is this Lugg's time - Lugg looked good at right tackle when he started five games there in 2019. Does he move back out there for the 2021 season, or is he needed more at guard?
3. What young players force their way onto the field - Notre Dame has a trio of talented young linemen in Kristofic, Carroll and Baker. Do any of them force their way onto the field this season?
Past Replace and Reload Features
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