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

Notre Dame offensive lineman, 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 — Sometimes it’s Jet’s Pizza. Other times its Domino’s or Little Caesars. No matter what, though, it’s one food item that the Notre Dame offensive line eats on Thursday nights: pizza.

It’s become a tradition among the Irish offensive lineman to get together on Thursday nights and have pizza. It’s helping Notre Dame become one of the more consistent offensive line units in the country.

Redshirt sophomore Aaron Banks hosts the weekly pizza hangouts, which have now been started to be documented by the Notre Dame football Twitter account. A 30-second video is usually tweeted out every Thursday, with Banks serving as the host.

Banks usually asks a question about the group, like “If you had to pick one o-lineman or tight end to be stuck on a desert island with, who would it be and why?” For that question, the group lineman and tight ends in the room mentioned redshirt freshman John Dirksen, the backup right guard, because he can “hunt fish.”

Banks was made the host of the videos because, well, it’s his apartment — along with redshirt junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg and junior tight end Cole Kmet, among others. The show isn’t afraid to move around, though.

“We have those guys every week, it’s our pizza night. But it’s not always at our house. We move it around a little bit,” Banks said. “Pizza night has been a thing among the o-line for a long time, and it’s a tradition.”

With offensive lineman comes a lot of big guys. This means the amount of empty pizza boxes at the end of the night can stack pretty high.

“It’s about a pizza a person, so probably about 15,” Banks said.

Pizza night has been especially helpful for the young players, like redshirt freshman Jarrett Patterson.

“It’s really tight-knit. We try and spend as much time together outside of football. That’s always huge for us, just to keep developing that chemistry,” Patterson said. “That’s what we try to do for the young guys coming in — just really understand we have to be tight-knit all the time, just kind of understand each other and learn everything about each other.”

Patterson stepped into a key role this year for the Irish. After graduating two captains in left guard Alex Bars and center Sam Mustipher, Notre Dame had some big holes to fill. In a somewhat fortunate way, Banks had played left guard the final nine games of the 2018 season due to an injury to Bars, leaving only the center position to truly replace heading into 2019.

That’s where Patterson came in. At 6-4, 300 pounds, Patterson isn’t built like a traditional center. That’s because he isn’t. Patterson converted from left tackle to center during spring came.

Patterson had never played center before being asked to make the switch.

“It’s one of the things I said to these guys is that if your best five players are all tackles, then two are going to play guard and one is going to have to learn how to play center. And I said, ‘Jarrett, that’s you,’” Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn said back in August. “He embraced it. The one thing about Jarrett — he’s got such a positive attitude about the game, himself and wanting to contribute.”

Patterson admitted there was a learning curve, but has been able to adapt to the position pretty smoothly.

“Obviously, there were snap issues, but that’s pretty normal,” Patterson said. “Just kept going through it, just keep working snaps. The first couple of days it felt fast, but after understanding everything and what’s going on, the game really slowed down for me. That was huge.”

The emergence of Patterson to a veteran offensive line has help the Irish front become a strong unit once again. They’ve allowed only eight sacks in the first five games, including none on the road against Georgia. The offense has had at least 150 yards rushing and passing in each game except one, giving the Irish offense the balance it needs to be successful.

Offensive line has been a position of strength at Notre Dame for years under head coach Brian Kelly, dating back to the days when Zack Martin patrolled the o-line. Recent standouts like Banks, Mustipher, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson have added to the lore of offensive line play in South Bend.

Gatherings like pizza night have added to the story.

“I think it helps that chemistry,” Patterson said. “Trusting each other, knowing the other guys have your back all the time. I think that’s what it really means to us.”

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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