Notre Dame Offensive Line Shuffle Makes Sense Right Now, But Concerns Persist

Notre Dame is spending a lot of time moving its offensive linemen around, which could cause problems down the road
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Notre Dame is going through the spring without all five starters from its potent 2020 offensive line. There is going to be no smooth transition for the line as it looks for replacements. Through the first seven practices of the spring the Irish coaches have been moving its linemen all around in its attempt to figure out its best five-man combination.

This decision makes sense in the early portion of the spring, as the Notre Dame offensive staff must figure out who fits where, what combination(s) works the best and they need to be able to find out if some players might be able to get comfortable at a spot they have yet to play during their time at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame also welcomed three incoming freshmen for the spring, and two of them - Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler - have gotten first team reps. Redshirt freshman Tosh Baker has played both right and left tackle, redshirt freshman Michael Carmody has lined up in at least four different spots during the spring, Andrew Kristofic is playing guard and center - as is Dillan Gibbons.

One constant was expected to be redshirt sophomore Zeke Correll, who was expected to take over for Jarrett Patterson at center, but that isn't the lock that we thought it would be.

"We're not closing our minds towards any combinations on that offensive line and I say that because I want to keep it competitive," head coach Brian Kelly said following Saturday's practice. "I don't want to give Zeke the starting job at center because I want to keep competition. Zeke's not [being] given that offensive position, he's not the starting center yet. Jarrett Patterson can go play that center position and we're a good football team, and I'm not just saying that to get it out in the media and you guys can say, 'Oh, Coach Kelly's keeping [pressure] .... it's true, I've got to keep him growing and getting better, he's got a lot to work on."

The desire for competition isn't about Correll, it's about creating it at all five positions.

"That's why we're seeing a lot of Rocco Spindler at guard," continued Kelly. "That's why we're seeing a lot of Kristofic and Gibbons and guys of that nature. We're keeping our options open ... I want to keep competition in the spring. Nobody's granted that job."

This is an admirable decision by Kelly and the offensive staff, and when you have the depth of talent that Notre Dame returns up front - unproven as it may be - it's good to open up the positions for competition, and let the best five men win. You want that kind of competition at all positions, and it's absolutely needed as the staff looks to find its best lineup from tackle to tackle.

What follows is not at all an indictment or criticism of the plan to open up all five positions for competition or the constant reshuffling being done up to this point. It was needed, it was a positive and it's something I support.

Here's the issue, there comes a point where that re-shuffling can stifle competition and hinder the development of what will ultimately become the starting offensive line.

When Notre Dame takes the field against Florida State whatever combination the Irish use up front will be the first time that unit has taken the field together. There will come a point in time where the staff must start making some decisions. Not with all five spots, but they need to start figuring out which players are locks to be starters and then put those players in position to focus on that one position.

There are simply too many open spots and too many developing players and so much for players to prove for Notre Dame to set a specific time or period to figure out its five starters. So saying something like, "By practice 10 we need to find our starting lineup," or even, "By the start of fall camp we need to have an idea of who is playing where." 

What must happen, however, is the staff must give some players opportunities to settle into spots. 

For example, the odds of Notre Dame playing someone other than Patterson or Correll at center are slim, and if a player was good enough during center action to beat out Correll we would have already started to see glimpses of that. If that is happening that player needs to start spending all of his time at center so the staff can see what he can do and so that player can start developing his center skills.

On the flip side, if players like Kristofic and Gibbons - two veterans who have played guard and center this spring, aren't legitimate contenders to beat out Correll and are simply cross training for depth they need to now be allowed to focus only on guard. This is especially true for Kristofic, who has played very limited snaps in his Notre Dame career.

Allowing Joshua Lugg to settle into a position would be a great start, but I realize that can be difficult because you don't know if the three players that will ultimately start (along with Lugg and Patterson) are tackles or interior players. 

Competition is great, and I love that Kelly is saying the right things about competition up front. But he must be careful that we don't get to the point of diminishing returns of that competition, and hopefully over the final seven practices of the spring (prior to the Blue-Gold Game) some players start to show greater comfort at specific positions, the staff starts to allow those players to focus on more narrow assignments (one position - guard, center or tackle) and that by the end of spring at least two positions are locked up.

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