Improved Notre Dame offensive line presents real challenge for Alabama football

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Fairly or not, Notre Dame’s last postseason meeting with Alabama — a 42-14 shellacking in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, 2013 — has been unavoidable. Since then, Alabama has won two more national championships and appeared in all but one of seven College Football Playoffs. Notre Dame’s lone Playoff appearance ended in a 30-3 loss to Clemson, missing out on another chance at Alabama.

The No. 4 Fighting Irish (10-1) get that chance again on Friday (3 p.m., ESPN) in the College Football Playoffsemifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is confident he is bringing a more adequate program to the task this time against the top-ranked Crimson Tide (10-0). Kelly said that growth is most apparent on the line of scrimmage.

Nov 7, 2020; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly leads his team out of the tunnel before the game against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame defeated Clemson 47-40 in two overtimes. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

“What was clear and you didn’t even have to be somebody who knew anything about football, was the disparity in the offensive and defensive lines,” Kelly said of the 2012 game. ‘Building it that way over the last six years, when we got to 2017 and 2018, we felt like we were much more physical up front, got to the Fiesta Bowl, got back into the Playoff. That’s been really what we’ve taken from that journey in 2012, building it with the physicality of the offensive and defensive line.”

On the offensive line, it is a matter of development more than recruiting. On the Irish’s 2012 offensive line, all of them were either top 200 prospects or top six players at their position in their class; three of the five were both.

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This year, the Fighting Irish have a similarly well-rated line: two of the top 10 tackles in the class of 2016 are starters at left tackle (Liam Eichenberg) and right guard (Tommy Kraemer). Starting left guard Aaron Banks was a top 200 prospect in the 2017 class and right tackle Robert Hainsey was a top 100 prospect in 2017.

Even in replacing injured starting center Jarrett Patterson, the Irish are choosing between the No. 3 center in the class of 2019 (Zeke Correll) and near top 100 prospect in the class of 2017 (Josh Lugg).

The recruiting profiles being roughly comparable, Notre Dame’s improvement on the offensive line comes down to development.

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Harry Hiestand’s first season as Notre Dame’s offensive line coach was 2012.  Two of the starters, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, would become  first- and third-round draft picks, respectively, two years later. After his final season with the Irish before joining the Chicago Bears, two of his players were drafted in the top 10 in 2018.

Hiestand has since been replaced by longtime Kelly assistant and former University of Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn.

Under Quinn, this year’s offensive line is a finalist for the Joe Moore Award while Eichenberg has been named a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy.

“They don’t miss their targets very often, they finish blocks and they play hard,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “They’re physical, and I think that’s probably the best word to describe them on both sides of the ball up front, is very physical. These guys do a really good job up front and they don’t make very many mistakes, I can tell you that.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson