ND FOOTBALL POSITION BREAKDOWNS: Offensive line boasts depth, injury concerns

Notre Dame offensive linemen, from left, Tommy Kraemer, Robert Hainsey, Liam Eichenberg and Aaron Banks get ready to line up for a play during the 2019 season.

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame only had one spring practice before everything was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. So, where do these cancellations leave coach Brian Kelly’s squad?

Let’s take a look at each position and see how the Irish fare heading into a summer without spring practices.

After looking at the skill positions on offense, it’s time to focus on the players protecting the quarterback: Offensive linemen. Nine players are expected to compete for five starting jobs come the fall. Here’s a breakdown of those players.

INJURY CONCERNS

Notre Dame had no injury issues through the first six games of 2019 along its offensive line. That all changed in the Oct. 26 contest against Michigan when right guard Tommy Kraemer went down with a sprained MCL. Kraemer missed the rest of the season.

A week later against Virginia Tech, the Irish’s right tackle, Robert Hainsey, broke his ankle, ending his season as well. This left the entire right side of the Notre Dame offensive line out for the remaining five games. Graduate senior Trevor Ruhland filled in for Kraemer, while redshirt sophomore Josh Lugg took over for Hainsey.

Both Kraemer and Hainsey were expected to miss most of the spring practices with their injuries. Both players participated in offseason workouts and were at the first spring practice March 5, but neither put on pads or played.

On top of their injuries, the starting left guard for Notre Dame last year, Aaron Banks, was in a walking boot for the first spring practice. Per head coach Brian Kelly, the 6-foot-5, 335-pound lineman fractured his right foot and was going to miss all of spring practice. That gave the Irish three key offensive linemen on the shelf at the start of March due to foot or knee injuries.

Fortunately for Notre Dame, all three are back. Kraemer still has one year of eligibility left as a graduate senior, Hainsey one as a true senior and Banks two as a redshirt junior. It’s expected all three will step back into starting positions once fully healthy, but there will be some competition along the way.

POSITION CONTENDERS

With Lugg taking the place of Hainsey still in spring practice, this left two positions open along the offensive line. They were filled in the lone spring practice by redshirt sophomore John Dirksen, who was in place for Kraemer, and senior Colin Grunhand, taking the place of Banks.

Dirksen played in eight games in 2019, primarily at right guard. He was listed as the second-string RG for the majority of the season. He still has three years of eligibility, which could set him up to be a starter in the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

Grunhand made six appearances in 2019. He was listed as the backup center on the depth chart but had the versatility to play all three positions along the line. This is his final year of eligibility.

Another name to look out for is Dillan Gibbons. As a redshirt sophomore last year, Gibbons appeared in all 13 contests as Banks’ backup. He’ll be a vital backup this year given the question marks surrounding the o-line health.

HEALTHY FACES

The two constants on the Irish offensive line last season were left tackle Liam Eichenberg and center Jarrett Patterson. Both started all 13 games.

Eichenberg was a veteran even at the start of 2019, having started all 13 games in 2018 at left tackle. He followed that up with a strong 2019 campaign and is expected to be one of the leaders for Notre Dame as a graduate senior in 2020.

Patterson was the opposite. He had never played center before being moved there in spring practices in 2019. He adapted to the position well, though, and the redshirt sophomore could be the starter there for the next three seasons.

The other returning healthy lineman is Lugg, who has been called a “Swiss army knife” by Kelly. Lugg can play all five positions along the line, having made starts at right tackle last year. It will be interesting to see where he fits in once everyone is back and fully healthy.

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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