Notre Dame's offensive line may act in relative obscurity behind the scenes, but its consistent work in front of quarterback Ian Book has been instrumental in driving the success of the Fighting Irish offense throughout the 2020 season. The unit's reliability has laid the foundation for Notre Dame's No. 2 College Football Playoff ranking and its berth in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday against Clemson in its first-ever season as a member of a conference.
The Fighting Irish lead the ACC and rank seventh in FBS in time of possession, controlling the ball for 34:09 minutes of game time which leads the ACC by more than two minutes per game. On third down, the most crucial one for sustaining offensive success, Notre Dame's offensive line shows its true value. The Irish stand atop the ACC and rank seventh nationally in third-down conversion rate, moving the chains 51.4 percent of the time.
Among its five experienced starters — graduate student Liam Eichenberg, senior left guard Aaron Banks, junior center Jarrett Patterson, graduate student right guard Tommy Kraemer and senior right tackle Robert Hainsey — Notre Dame's starting offensive line boasts 156 career starts, the fourth-highest total in FBS.
Earlier this week, the unit was named a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award — an annual honor bestowed upon the "toughest, most physical offensive line in the country" — for which the Irish were also tabbed as a semifinalist in 2018 after winning the award in 2017.
Additionally, Hainsey joined Book in garnering recognition as two of the 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School®) Award. The award, for which Notre Dame is the only school with multiple finalists, honors FBS seniors who "have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition."
Of Notre Dame's 10 games this season, four have resulted in an Irish lineman being named ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week. Hainsey claimed a share of the award, the group's first of the season, for his performance in the 52-0 win over USF where the Irish piled up 281 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Eichenberg took home the honor after the 31-13 win over Georgia Tech on Oct. 31 as Notre Dame dominated the proceedings, possessing the ball for 36 minutes and 54 seconds, its second-highest mark of the season. He won it a second time after Notre Dame ran for 201 yards and three touchdowns against North Carolina — the Irish's fifth consecutive game with three scores on the ground — in a 31-17 win the day after Thanksgiving. In addition to his two ACC weekly honors, Eichenberg has also been named a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation's best interior lineman on either side of the ball.
Banks got in on the act in November, when he helped to clear the way for Kyren Williams — who was named the ACC Running Back of the Week — to rush for a then-career-high 140 yards and a career-high three touchdowns in Notre Dame's huge, overtime win over then-No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. The line has set the foundation for Williams to already surpass 1,000 rushing yards while the team ranks third in the ACC and 11th nationally in rushing offense (235.0 ypg). One of the highlights of the season thus far came on the Irish's first play from scrimmage against the Tigers, when Williams took the handoff and ran off the left side of the line for a 65-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame a quick 7-0 lead over Clemson just 33 seconds into the game.
Not to be left out, Kraemer capped off the three-week run for the Irish O-line when he was selected following a 45-31 victory over Boston College on Nov. 14. In that game, Notre Dame piled up 561 yards without allowing a sack against a defense that entered the game allowing just 373 yards per game while averaging 2.75 sacks per game.
This Irish offensive line was molded together with very different parts. Banks (Alameda, nine miles from San Francisco) and Patterson (Laguna Hills, 40 miles from Los Angeles) both came from California while Eichenberg, Kraemer and Hainsey — who hail from Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, respectively — represent the Midwest. Sophomore Zeke Correll, who has stepped in at center after Patterson suffered a foot injury that likely will keep him sidelined for the remainder of the season, also is from Cincinnati, a graduate of Anderson High School while Kraemer starred at Elder.
Geographic background isn't the only area where these linemen veer apart. A range of academic majors are represented, including Hainsey (finance) and Kraemer (management consulting) within the Mendoza College of Business. Eichenberg (American studies), Banks (film, television and theatre), Patterson (political science), and Correll (economics) are part of the College of Arts and Letters.
Despite their diversity — in hometown as well as in academic interest — this group thrives as a cohesive unit, with the common theme that their best work goes largely unnoticed save for the weekly conference award and end-of-season accolades. The better and more consistently they play, the less they are noticed, because the spotlight moves squarely to Book, the running backs and receiving corps. But while Book gets the bulk of the recognition, he is more than happy to pass along the praise.
"I'm truly blessed," Book said earlier in the season. "I really feel like we have the best O-line the country."
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @NDFootball)