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Irish O-line looks to build on in-season improvements

There were a lot of things that didn’t go right in the first half of Notre Dame’s 2022 season. Few position groups performed further below expectations than Notre Dame’s offensive line. It was one thing to see the Irish struggle to run the ball against an Ohio State team that would eventually reach the College Football Playoff. But to see the Irish held to 3.5 yards per carry by Marshall the next week raised immediate red flags about the state of Notre Dame’s offensive line.

Eventually, the Irish answered those questions. By season’s end, an Irish program known for its O-line prowess was back to handling opposing front sevens. Few Irish fans will forget how the unit flexed its muscles, literally and figuratively, in Notre Dame’s 35-14 destruction of then-No. 4 Clemson. After Notre Dame rushed for just 130 yards as a team against the Thundering Herd, sophomore running back Logan Diggs nearly topped that figure alone. The Irish galloped for 263 yards on an average of 5.6 per carry while also protecting quarterback Drew Pyne well.

That the Irish finished with respectable rankings in stats most associated with offensive line play such as rushing yards (35th) and sacks allowed (39th) given their dismal play at the start of the year speaks to how much they turned things around. Of course, one of the biggest reasons for Notre Dame’s O-line resurgence was All-American graduate student Jarrett Patterson, who was notably absent for the opener at Ohio State due to a right foot sprain. Patterson finished his Irish career with all kinds of accolades. Perhaps most impressively, he did not allow a single sack in nearly 1,700 pass block snaps. The Irish will certainly miss his dominance at left guard.

For as good as Patterson was, the guy to his left might have been even better. According to Pro Football Focus, sophomore Joe Alt graded out as college football’s top tackle in 2022. It’s been a meteoric rise for Alt. He’s gone from three-star recruit (according to Rivals) to starter in 2021 to downright elite last season. Alt could be the latest in a long line of Irish offensive line greats.

They’ll need him to be every bit as good in 2023 with Patterson and Notre Dame’s other starting guard, graduate student Josh Lugg, set to depart. The Irish will have senior center Zeke Correll back and sophomore Blake Fisher will look to build on his breakout 2022 season at right tackle.

Notre Dame adds five new O-linemen to the program for 2023, all from their recruiting class. That quintet includes Notre Dame’s highest rated recruit (according to 247 Sports) in tackle Charles Jagusah. Jagusah is a four-star recruit, as are tackle Sullivan Absher, who comes to South Bend from South Point High School in Belmont, NC, and interior linemen Sam Pendleton (also from North Carolina) and Joe Otting. Three-star interior lineman Christopher Terek rounds out the class.

It’s possible that some of that group sees playing time in 2023, but it would be a major surprise if any of them take over Patterson or Lugg’s starting spots. After all, the Irish also brought in several four-star linemen in last year’s recruiting class, including tackles Aamil Wagner and Billy Schrauth. More experienced options like junior Andrew Kristofic and sophomore Rocco Spindler could see increased roles as well. There will definitely be some things for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to sort out in the second year of his second stint in South Bend. But given the strong foundation bookended by Alt and Fisher at tackle, Notre Dame’s O-line should be rock-solid once again. Hopefully from day one this time around.

2023 Projected Depth Chart

LT: Joe Alt, Tosh Baker

LG: Billy Schrauth, Rocco Spindler

C: Zeke Correll, Pat Coogan

RG: Andrew Kristofic, Aamil Wagner

RT: Blake Fisher, Michael Carmody

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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‘The third and fourth quarters are our quarters’: Irish run game executes monster second half to beat South Carolina

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In Notre Dame’s 45-38 Gator Bowl win over South Carolina, the Irish run game paved the way to victory with 264 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. 

Sophomore running back Logan Diggs finished the day with 89 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. He also added 81 receiving yards, which included a 75-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Sophomore Audric Estime and junior Chris Tyree also found success in the run game, finishing the day with 95 and 21 rushing yards, respectively. 

Diggs scored his receiving touchdown off of a short pass from sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner. Diggs then raced down the sideline, beating the pursuit of multiple Gamecock players to the end zone. Diggs’ explosive touchdown cut the Gamecocks’ lead to seven and kept the Irish within striking distance at halftime. 

Diggs described what went through his head during his touchdown. 

“As soon as I got out of my release, I knew it was good. I have trust in Tyler that he’s going to put it where it needs to be. At that point I have to trust myself and trust my speed to capitalize, and I did, and it’s a blessing,” Diggs said.

Although the Irish only had 54 rushing yards in the first half, the second half saw the Irish rush for 210 rushing yards.

Diggs knew that the run game would have success after halftime. 

“We always know the third and fourth quarters are our quarters,” Diggs said. “We had to be patient in the first half, but once your back is against the wall, that’s the type of games that we want.”

Offensive line steps up to provide crucial blocks

Diggs praised the offensive line for the team’s second-half success on the ground. 

“When we were in that huddle and you see the O-line and they’re fixing their gloves and tightening their hands, you just know. I have the utmost trust in them and [offensive line] coach Harry [Hiestand] and their preparation,” Diggs said. “All I do is adjust my reads and trust my coaches and go out there and execute. They put us in a great position to continue to run the ball.

Buchner himself had a great day on the ground, rushing for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Buchner also credited his success in the run game to the offensive line.

“The big guys played their tails off. It’s great standing there in the huddle when they’re strapping their gloves and they’re ready to go. Having that look in their eyes gives you more confidence as quarterback that we’re going to be able to run the ball,” Buchner said.

Head coach Marcus Freeman loves the mentality of his offensive linemen late in the game.

“They want the pressure on. They want to run the ball in those critical moments, and hats off to them,” Freeman said. “They’re an excellent group. They’ve done an excellent job all season.”

In addition to praising his running backs and offensive line, Buchner praised the blocking of his tight ends and wide receivers as well.

“The boys up front were rolling today. Our backs had an unbelievable day,” Buchner said. “The tight ends and the wideouts had a huge role in the run game today, and I don’t know if people realize that. [Graduate student Matt] Salerno, [sophomore] Deion [Colzie], [sophomore Jayden] Thomas, [sophomore Lorenzo] Styles Jr…. those guys blocked their tails off all day long. Those are things that go unnoticed.”

Freeman touted his team’s ability to run the football against a South Carolina defense that was expecting them to run the ball.

“When you have the ability to run the ball when the other team knows you’re going to run it, that’s when you know things are rolling. They knew we were going to run the ball,” Freeman said.

On the game-winning touchdown drive, the Irish focused heavily on running the football, but they ultimately scored on a pass play to sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans on a critical third down.

Freeman credited the run game with opening up the game-winning touchdown pass to Evans.

“I think it’s a credit to how we were running the ball,” Freeman said. “In that short yardage situation, to be able to leak Mitch out, that’s a tough play for a defense, especially when you’re able to run the ball.”

Looking ahead

The success of the run game in the Gator Bowl bodes well for the Irish run game next season with the Irish returning their top three running backs in Diggs, Estime and Tyree. The Irish also return three of their starting offensive lineman next season with sophomore left tackle Joe Alt, senior center Zeke Correll, and sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher all expected to return. The Irish will need to replace graduate student right guard Josh Lugg and graduate student left guard Jarrett Patterson.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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A ‘Notre Dame man’: Josh Lugg develops as player and leader

There were two things that went into Josh Lugg’s decision to return to Notre Dame for a sixth year in 2022. First, there was the practical side of it. Lugg felt he needed more development before pursuing his NFL dream. The return of universally regarded offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who recruited and coached Lugg during his first season with the Irish, made the decision even easier.

But there was a second part. The Irish have long held a reputation for churning out quality offensive linemen. Two of the team’s starters Lugg’s freshman year, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, became top-10 NFL draft picks. However, they weren’t just great players, they were great mentors for Lugg, the No. 15 offensive tackle of his recruiting class. Over the last two seasons, the Irish have welcomed some more highly touted offensive line recruits, such as sophomore Blake Fisher, sophomore Joe Alt, freshman Billy Schrauth and more. The chance to return to Notre Dame Stadium and better his NFL chances was obviously important to Lugg. But, so was the chance to provide the same type of guidance that Lugg received from McGlinchey, Nelson, Hunter Bivin and others that helped him get to where he is.

“I wanted to be a mentor for the young guys,” said the Wexford, Pa, native. “Help them understand what it means to be a Notre Dame man.” 

Lugg in his sixth year at Notre Dame has followed a fairly traditional development curve. He redshirted in 2017, then saw the field in all but one of Notre Dame’s games in their College Football Playoff run of 2018, albeit primarily for kicking duties. His first “big break” came the next season, with a Robert Hainsey injury opening the door to start five games. Injuries cracked the door open again for Lugg in 2020. In particular, he showed off his versatility by making one start at right guard and two more at center due to injuries to Tommy Kraemer and current graduate student Jarrett Patterson, respectively.

Lugg didn’t need injuries to crack the door open to become a first-time full-time starter a season ago. In fact, he started 12 of Notre Dame’s 13 games last season. He and the rest of the offensive line helped weather some early-season storms, helping the Irish develop a ground-first identity. Notre Dame’s run game has progressed from a liability to a lifesaver, especially in Notre Dame’s most memorable game of the season, its 35-14 upset of then No. 4 Clemson on Nov. 5. The Irish rushed for 263 yards and held the football for 33 minutes flat. After watching most of Notre Dame’s 2020 upset of Clemson from the bench, Lugg was front and center this time.

Part of the reason why Lugg has such a strong influence is the wide variety of experiences he’s had. He called Heistand’s departure for the Chicago Bears after his freshman year “devastating” and went through the turmoil of last offseason when Brian Kelly unexpectedly left to go to LSU.

“It’s important to be happy for the coaches, and understand that you committed to Notre Dame, not necessarily a coach,” Lugg said. “Coaches are gonna come and go, but the players you have at 5:30 when you’re sitting in the locker room in the morning before winter workout — those are the guys that are gonna be with you.”

While Lugg downplayed Alt and Fisher’s need for help in particular, calling them “mature and ahead of their age, very much aware of what the standard is here as a Notre Dame offensive lineman,” everyone can always use a helping hand. That help goes beyond football, too. The former Duncan Hall Highlander will do anything to help his younger peers fit in. Maybe that means going out to dinner. Maybe that meets talking about real-world things like “faith and family.” Whatever it means, Lugg is up to the task.

The challenge of Notre Dame, particularly on the academic side, was a huge attractor to bring Lugg to South Bend. After graduating last year with his finance degree, Lugg is currently getting his masters in analytics. He knows how difficult Notre Dame can be.

But it’s that difficulty that helps create the brotherhood that Lugg also said drew him to Notre Dame.

“[It was] something I didn’t really see at other schools,” Lugg said. Lugg knows his football life won’t last forever. Though he hopes to go pro, he also cited the common quip of the NFL standing for “Not For Long.” In particular, he is passionate about real estate, which he minored in at Notre Dame. In fact, he worked for former Notre Dame basketball star ‘15 Pat Connaughton’s real estate development company Three Leaf Partners a few years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Right now, though, Lugg is focused on two things. First is not “wast[ing] any of God’s talent.” Second, teaching the next crop of Irish o-line stars everything they need to know to ensure they don’t either.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu

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Joe Alt, offensive line prepare for test against Syracuse defense

Last season, left tackle Joe Alt was thrown into action as a freshman after the Irish offensive line was gashed by injuries. Despite his inexperience, Alt played incredibly well, earning a freshman All-American accolade. This season, the sophomore has continued to build on his freshman year success. He has built off last year’s progress to become one of the most dominant left tackles in college football.

Alt has found this year’s additional experience helpful, notably in late-game situations.

“Experience is definitely huge,” Alt said. “There’s confidence as the game goes on knowing that you have been there and trusting your ability.”

Alt also knows the importance of improving his form, both with his feet and hands.

“For me, it’s been about building confidence, snap in and snap out. We break down the film every practice and every game. I think for me, my biggest focus has been working on my footwork and making sure that it’s good in everything we do in the pass and run in that first second.

“And then also with my hands,” Alt continued, “Making sure I am being as efficient as possible and trusting my punch in the pass game and getting the defenders where I need to have them in the run game.”

These improvements will be especially crucial against Syracuse. The Orange defense has shown a lot of movement this season, and Alt understands the importance of keeping his feet beneath him every play.

“In the film, they showed a lot of movement. We need to make sure our feet are beneath us, and we are seeing the alignments and attacking the proper way,” Alt said.

Alt credits his improvement this season to his improved footwork and ability to win battles in the first second after the snap.

“Looking back to last year, the footwork has been so important to me this year and winning that first second. That’s so crucial to [offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s] coaching for me,” Alt said.

Alt recognized the importance of getting in the right position and finishing out every play.

“I need to get into that position where I am in between the defensive end and the quarterback and just use my punch and finish blocks,” Alt said.

In addition to focusing on the rest of the offensive line, Alt has made sure to pick up his fellow teammates. Right now, that means supporting sophomore running back Audric Estime, who has had some ball control issues as of late.

“We have so much faith in Audric that he is going to run the ball hard, and we know that. It’s just building trust as the offensive line, knowing that he is going to be able to run behind us,” Alt said. “[Audric] knows he can be confident and run the ball, and we know he’s going to be great.”

Ahead of Saturday’s matchup against Syracuse at JMA Wireless Dome, Alt and the Irish have prepared for the noisy atmosphere.

“It’s going to be a dome, so it’s going to be loud,” Alt said. “I think it’s going to be crucial for us to be ready for all the noise. We have prepared for it, so we know it’s going to be there, and we just need to perform our best.”

“We pump in some music [in practice] just to know that it’s going to be loud there,” Alt said. “Communication is going to be tough, so we want to practice that here.”

The offensive line has evaluated film to prepare for the difficult test. Syracuse ranks top-15 in the entire country in total defense. Alt stressed the importance of the offensive line working together as one unit to shut them down.

“We are going to develop our scheme this week and play the best we can as an offensive line. We are going to see what we are going to see and perform our best,” Alt said.

Alt stressed the importance of the offensive line playing as a singular unit. That is vital to giving the quarterback protection and having success in the run game.

“As an offensive line, the biggest thing is playing five as one,” Alt said. “We need to handle their movements up front in both the pass and the run game. When we get on guys, we need to use our arm strength and move guys as best we can.”

Alt hopes his offensive line can facilitate success in the Irish run game on Saturday.

“The biggest thing for us is building confidence and being able to run the ball,” Alt said. “For us, when a team can’t stop the run, it builds so much confidence in the offensive line, and you feel so good about that.”

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Thomas: Where Ben Morrison ranks among recent Irish recruiting steals

Within just weeks, three-star cornerback recruit Benjamin Morrison claimed a starting job within the vaunted Notre Dame defense. Morrison came to South Bend as the second-highest cornerback recruit in the class, with many figuring four-star Jaden Mickey to challenge for early playing time. Mickey has played some very important snaps for the Irish, but it is the previously little-known Morrison that has carved out a regular role. Where does Morrison rank amidst recent Irish recruiting steals? The Irish have molded several lower-rated recruits into dominant starters, but did any get off to as fast a start as the Phoenix, Arizona, native? 

Where does Morrison fall

Morrison came to Notre Dame ranked as the 311th-best recruit per 247 and the 35th-best cornerback. He received a .9000 grade on the dot from 247. Morrison wasn’t an early enrollee, so the headlines centered around Mickey and his brash confidence at the spring game. But after a strong camp and preseason, Morrison forced his way into the cornerback rotation. He played 29 snaps in the opener at Ohio State. He usurped the starting role a few short weeks after.

A three-star recruit that was seemingly a depth addition to a strong class, Morrison looks like one of the best recruiting steals for the Irish in recent memory. To compare him to recent and similar recruiting steals, I looked at the litany of Irish three-star recruits that became big-time contributors for the blue and gold. In order to create this list, a combination of how quickly they became a starter and their overall impact on the team over their career was considered. 

Recent Recruiting Steals

7. Logan Diggs

Diggs filled a big hole late in the 2021 recruiting cycle for Notre Dame. The Irish went hard after eventual Clemson commit Will Shipley, and they needed to pivot late. They grabbed Diggs, ranked as the 504th-best player and 35th-best running back. While Diggs never was RB1 as a freshman, Diggs appeared in eight games, filling some critical roles especially when eventual fifth-round draft pick Kyren Williams was drafted. 

6. Jarrett Patterson

Patterson wasn’t exactly a highly underrated recruit, but he did enter Notre Dame ranked as the 25th-best offensive tackle in the country and the 369th-best player. However, Patterson has established himself as a linchpin of the Irish offensive line in recent years. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games of the 2019 season at center. He’s moved around between tackle and center over his career, but outside of missing the end of the 2020 season due to injury, Patterson has been a full-time starter since cracking the lineup. 

5. Clarence Lewis 

In a bit of irony, Lewis, who just largely lost his job to Morrison, comes in at No. 5. Given recent events and Lewis’s struggles, it’s easy to forget he came in as a freshman and took over a starting role on a College Football Playoff-bound team. Lewis played in nine games as a freshman, taking over as a starter in November. He entered as the 727th-ranked prospect and 58th-ranked cornerback. He stays lower on the list given he has since been surpassed on the depth chart. 

4. Benjamin Morrison

For now, Morrison slots in at No. 4. He’s got a lot to prove, but after becoming a starter by Week 3 of his true freshman year, and given the fact that he wasn’t an early enrollee, his rapid ascent merits a rise up this list. 

3. Kyren Williams

One of the best skill position players out of Notre Dame in the past few years, Kyren Williams didn’t come to South Bend with otherworldly amounts of hype. His .8918 recruit grade was modest, and he clocked it at No. 367 on the 247 recruit rankings. Even within the running backs, he was only ranked No. 24 on the list. Of course, Williams became a starter as a sophomore and pushed the Irish to a playoff berth in 2020. His 140-yard, three-touchdown effort against No. 1 Clemson, including a 65-yard touchdown run on his first rush of the game, remains a legendary performance. He finished his career with back-to-back 1000-yard seasons before departing for the NFL. 

2. Joe Alt 

Alt was almost forced into a starting role with underperformance and injury issues along the Irish offensive line. But after entering at left tackle against Cincinnati, Alt took over the starting job against Virginia Tech. He stabilized Notre Dame’s most questionable position and emerged as the clear starting left tackle for at least the next three years. Alt has almost seamlessly transitioned into this season as a starter, performing as the Irish’s best offensive lineman for most of the season. It’s easy to forget he entered with a .8862 prospect grade, rated as the 408th-best recruit in the country. 

1. Kurt Hinish

Kurt Hinish has been exceeding expectations long before he surprisingly made the Houston Texans roster this past preseason. Before that, Hinish entered as the 520th-ranked recruit and 43rd-ranked defensive tackle in the 2017 class. He immediately became a contributor as a freshman, appearing in 12 games in his first year. He had his coming out party in the USC rivalry clash, totaling a then-career-high three tackles against the Trojans. Ultimately, his collegiate career-high would amount to 10 in the 2022 matchup against Navy. Hinish played in 63 games over five years for the Irish, totaling 28 tackles and 2 sacks. The nose guard jumped from little-known three-star recruit to starting lineup staple for half a decade, earning the No. 1 spot on this list.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Ohio State

With the Irish currently sitting as 17.5-point underdogs against Ohio State, they are going to need a multitude of things to go their way come Saturday. Limiting the production of Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud will be nearly impossible, but there are other paths to victory for the Irish.

1. Win the turnover battle

This is an obvious one, but it is almost a necessity for Irish to upset the Buckeyes. With a young quarterback in sophomore Tyler Buchner, the Irish will need to avoid turnovers at all costs. Buchner had three crucial interceptions last year, and that is not going to fly in Columbus. Buchner will have his hands full, though, against a much-improved Ohio State defense led by former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

At cornerback, the Buckeyes will be led by Denzel Burke. Burke is coming off a terrific freshman season and has the potential to become one of the best corners in the league. The Buckeyes will also have plenty of talent at safety with Ronnie Hickman and Josh Proctor.

Although Proctor got injured last season, he arguably has the potential to become one of the best defensive playmakers in college football. Regardless, he will undoubtedly be a headache for Buchner and the Irish wide receiving corps. The Buckeyes also added Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCallister to further solidify their secondary.

With all this being said, Buchner will need to be precise and decisive in the passing game. If Buchner tries to force passes out to the flat or into tight spaces, the Buckeyes have plenty of playmakers to make Buchner pay for potential mistakes.

On the other side of the football, the Irish need to generate turnovers at opportune moments. The Irish will need anything they can get to take the life out of the crowd, and a timely interception and fumble can do just that. Stroud is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so the Irish will have to get lucky and get turnovers from their top defensive playmakers.

2. Limit Ohio State’s production through the air

C.J. Stroud is going to throw for a lot of yards against Notre Dame, and there is no way around that. What the Irish need to do is limit the big play. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the most important receiver for the Irish to stop. Unfortunately for the Irish, the Buckeyes have plenty of other options in the air. The incredibly athletic Marvin Harrison Jr. is one of these targets. So are Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka, two more reliable options for the Buckeyes to turn to as well.

So how can the Irish limit this lethal Buckeye passing game? The Irish cornerbacks will need to step up big time if they are going to have a chance. Junior Clarence Lewis struggled mightily in the Fiesta Bowl — he will have to be much improved if the Irish are going to stand a chance. Senior Cam Hart needs to step up as well. Although Hart had moments of greatness last season, there were times where he was the weak link of the Irish defensive corps. 

At safety, the Irish will need Northwestern senior safety transfer Brandon Joseph to be on top of his game. If Ohio State comes out of the gate firing with deep passes every which way, this game could be over before the first quarter. So it is vital for the Irish secondary to keep everything in front of them to keep the game close for as long as possible.

3. Develop a run game

Developing a run game is of the utmost importance for an Irish offense that should not try to rely too much on Buchner’s passing ability. The Irish have three great running backs, and it looks like all three of them should see plenty of snaps with no starter being named at the position.

Explosive junior Chris Tyree will likely lead the way for the Irish, bringing plenty of big-play potential. Tyree will be joined in the backfield by sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, who are both ideal for short-run situations but more than capable of breaking a long run as well.

Diggs jumped onto the scene last year with a fantastic game against Virginia Tech, and he finished the year strong with three touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in the process. Estime only had a handful of carries, but his six-foot, 228 lb frame should be perfect for goal line and third-and-short situations.

Aside from the running backs, Notre Dame should feature a much-improved offensive line. Sophomore Joe Alt will start at left tackle for the Irish after proving to be one of the best freshmen in the country at his position last year. Preseason AP All-American graduate student Jarrett Patterson will line up next to Alt, which should lock up the left side of the line. Alt and Patterson are joined by senior Zeke Correll, graduate student Josh Lugg and sophomore Blake Fisher, who all possess plenty of talent and experience to pave the way for a successful run game.

The Irish need to generate some long, slow drives that eat up the clock and keep the Ohio State offense off the field. Buchner himself is very effective on the ground, so look for him to contribute to this run game scheme as well. The Buckeyes have a strong defensive line, so this will be a huge matchup to keep an eye on Saturday night.

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu