‘I couldn’t give up:’ Offensive line embodies next-man-up mentality as injuries plague Irish
Grant DelVecchio | Sunday, November 3, 2019
Last week against Michigan, the Notre Dame offensive line was, to put it bluntly, horrible. The unit lost senior offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer early in the first quarter to a season-ending injury, and they didn’t look the same afterwards. All in all, a poorly played contest for the Irish.
Heading into this week, Kraemer was set to be replaced by graduate student Trevor Ruhland, an excellent lineman and high-character guy who is beloved within the locker room, according to junior tight end Cole Kmet.
But Ruhland is also someone who hasn’t seen the field much due to his injury-prone history.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play,” Ruhland said. “This spring was really hard for me. I was coming in [hopeful] to get the starting center spot that I’ve been waiting my four years for. Injuries kind of derailed a little bit of that, and I’m beat up, I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve been told not to play, that I shouldn’t play because I have the knee of an 80-year-old, they say, but I couldn’t give up.”
He also stated a list of all the injuries he’s dealt with over the years, and it seemed to never end. He’s known to live in the training facility by players and coaches alike. The list included: three left knee surgeries, a broken elbow, two torn pectoral muscles, a torn labrum, a torn shoulder, a broken ankle and a broken nose.
When asked why he’s still playing, Ruhland’s face lit up as he described how grateful he is to be a part of a locker room filled with the “best people in the world.”
Head coach Brian Kelly had some kind words about Ruhland after the game.
“Trevor Ruhland could have easily taken a pass on this, and said, ‘I’m out,’” Kelly said. “But he loves his teammates, he loves playing for Notre Dame. … We thought he was going to be a medical redshirt, quite frankly. We thought that there was no way. If you ask our training staff — I don’t think I’m putting any words in their mouths — they didn’t think that he was going to make it through the summer. But he wanted to play in his senior year; it was important to him, and so it’s great to see him have some success.”
If there was any worry about the state of the offensive line heading into the matchup with the Hokies, matters were only made worse after junior captain Robert Hainsey went down due to injury in the first quarter. Hainsey has a fractured left ankle and will be sidelined for some time.
Hainsey going down provides a huge loss for the line as well as the leadership of the team. Effectively, the team played the rest of the game with one entirely new side of the offensive line made up of Ruhland and junior lineman Josh Lugg.
Speaking on Lugg’s performance, Ruhland had high praise for the Wexford, Penn., native.
“I can’t say enough about Josh Lugg,” Ruhland said. “I’ve been in his situation, and the hardest position to be in is the next guy in, because you have to prepare like a starter. One guy gets hurt, I’m in, and the next guy gets hurt, and he’s in, and he did a fantastic job. He showed so much grit; he’s such a warrior, and I can’t give him enough credit for how he stepped in and played.”
Kmet also emphasized the effectiveness of Lugg and Ruhland.
“They work so hard in practice every day,” Kmet said. “They’re with the ones all the time in terms of film room and all of that stuff, and they didn’t miss a beat. They stepped right in, they were comfortable; I was making calls with Josh just like I would with Rob, so they do a good job of just coming to practice every day and that really shows when it’s their time to step in.”
Ruhland’s positivity also brings up the morale of the entire team, Kmet said.
“[Ruhland’s] always in the training room, so you always know where to find him because he’s always getting healed up,” Kmet said. “But he is just a good positive guy to have who always keeps our spirits up. He’s been a great leader for that offensive line group and the rest of the offense.”
The Irish offensive line only gave up one sack throughout the entire game, and there were many moments in which senior quarterback Ian Book had a clean pocket to make a pass. This next-man-up mentality is something Kelly said he drills into his player’s minds.
Aside from the offensive line unit, senior wide receiver Chase Claypool deserves as much credit as anybody after his performance. It could be argued Claypool is the man who put the Irish in the position to win in the first place.
Claypool finished the contest with eight catches for 118 total yards, two of which came in crucial moments on the final game-winning drive (one of which was a game-saving toe-drag catch on the sideline on a fourth down and 10).
“Great players make plays during times when you need them the most, and he showed himself as a great player because of the time and the circumstances,” Kelly said of Claypool. “He’s got such a high competitive nature to him that he always wants the football, and I kind of like that.”
Kmet also spoke about how helpful it is to have a receiver like Claypool on offense.
“Chase was the dude on the [last] drive — he was just demanding the ball, and Ian was putting it where Chase could get it, and Chase was making those plays,” Kmet said. “There’s definitely a good feeling when you’re out there with him. It’s kind of nice knowing that he’s bringing some attention as well too, so he’s a good guy to have out there.”
When his team needed him the most, Claypool was there to answer the call, as he has been so many times before. Claypool is an “awesome” player, Book said.
“He works hard every day and he’s a leader on our offense,” Book said. “He makes my job easier so I can’t thank him enough.”