Notre Dame’s offensive tackle battle takes center stage in a spring light on uncertainties

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Charles Jagusah took a seat in the El Paso airport the morning after the first start of his college career. Then he started to watch the Sun Bowl back, even as his teammates slept off the night before around the gate. Jagusah found plenty to critique from his performance in Notre Dame’s 40-8 blowout win against Oregon State, but that’s sort of the offensive tackle’s default setting.

On the surface, this doesn’t make much sense. The 6-foot-7, 329-pound Jagusah was the highest-rated prospect in Notre Dame’s sophomore class, a five-star according to one recruiting service. He was also a former state champion wrestler. When Joe Alt opted out of the Sun Bowl, it took Jagusah about 48 hours to win the job. In theory, he should be wired to spot his successes because there are so many of them. He just doesn’t.

“I nitpick a lot of different things. Some people say I’m a little too far with it, but I think I just use it as a way to get better,” Jagusah said. “Like if I’m not constantly adjusting things and figuring out what I’m doing wrong, then I’m never going to get better.”

If that’s true, Jagusah will enjoy spring practice more than most as Notre Dame rebuilds its offensive tackle depth chart within a roster that feels just about set everywhere else. Alt and Blake Fisher are gone, two three-and-out careers at a position where Notre Dame often gets five seasons from NFL talent. That has created two unnatural openings by Irish standards, leaving Jagusah, Tosh Baker and Aamil Wagner in a competition to fill them.

Jagusah is a prototypical tackle prospect without much experience; he logged five total snaps last season before starting the Sun Bowl. Baker is a fifth-year senior who has waited for an opening like this. Another national prospect, only from four cycles earlier thank Jagusah, Baker started in place of Fisher in the bowl game. His 61 snaps against Oregon State were more than half of his total work all season. As for Wagner, the junior looks more like a power forward than an offensive tackle, his 6-6, 290-pound frame somehow modest compared to Jagusah and the 6-8, 321-pound Baker.

Jagusah and Baker picked up where they left off with the starting lineup in spring ball. It’s on offensive line coach Joe Rudolph to decide whether they stay there as one of Notre Dame’s most consistent positions of strength gets a revamp.

“I think the great part is if we’re doing our job, then these guys will continue to raise the bar of, who has the best pass set? What’s our best drive block? What’s the best we can fit a deuce? How do we best protect when we’re manned up?” Rudolph said. “There’s a way in which guys can play where they make the guy better next to them. Sometimes it’s communication, sometimes it’s their physicality, sometimes it’s the detail with which they play with. So that’s always something like guys that really complement each other when they play together can be a factor.

“But no, we’re gonna compete and keep growing, and we’re going to have that best group out there, for sure.”

The rest of the starting offensive line figures to feature center Ashton Craig plus guards Billy Schrauth and Pat Coogan, although guard Rocco Spindler’s return from a knee injury last November gives the Irish a fourth option on the interior. Regardless, Notre Dame should be fine between the tackles. Rudolph sees enough experience and ability there to feel good about where the middle of the line is headed.

The tackle evaluation, though, may require more work.

Notre Dame should feel fortunate Baker is here to contribute. After picking up his first starts in 2021, he logged a total of 16 snaps during Harry Hiestand’s single season as O-line coach under Marcus Freeman. If Alt and Fisher hadn’t left — Alt projects as a top-10 pick in April’s NFL Draft; Fisher may go in the middle rounds — the door would have closed on Baker at Notre Dame, at least in terms of playing time.

“A lot of guys in my position would have left and hit the road. I love Notre Dame, the guys in the room and I love our coaching staff,” Baker said. “I know I was going to be able to grow to my full potential here, and that’s why I stayed. I learned so much from Joe and Blake.”

All three of Notre Dame’s tackle candidates have to bridge the experience gap between them and the Alt/Fisher combination. Wagner is also fighting his own metabolism. He enrolled at Notre Dame at barely 265 pounds, dwarfed by the line talent already on hand. And that’s still partially the case, even as Wagner has bulked up by standards of normal human beings.

Wagner said at his peak he consumed 8,000 calories. He tracked a single day where he consumed 4,500 calories for breakfast — “five eggs, burrito, potatoes, 1,500 calories in muffins, 2,000 a shake” — in an attempt to get bigger. It’s working, just perhaps not as quickly as he’d always like. He said his mother’s fettuccine alfredo helps, too.

“A lot of people see it or think it’s like a chore for me, but really it’s just another step in my process to improvement,” he said. “Honestly, since it’s for my improvement, I don’t (mind it). I think if I wasn’t playing football, I wouldn’t eat this much. But it’s a passion I have. It’s a love for the game that I’m willing to make the sacrifices of doing the extra food, and it tastes good so I’m happy about it.”

As Notre Dame’s spring practice schedule kicks into gear after a week off, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to decide among Jagusah, Baker and Wagner just yet. Rudolph wants more runway and more film to critique, not just between now and the spring game on April 20 but also until the season opener at Texas A&M over Labor Day weekend.

There’s a good chance Jagusah, Baker and Wagner will take advantage of the time. And the tape.

“Yeah, I’m a freak about film,” Jagusah said. “I’ve got to watch it right away. I’m a little annoyed, because I have class at 11, so I can’t watch (Wednesday’s) practice. It’s like it’s never as bad as you think. It’s never as good as you think. So, just watching it through to kind of see the things that I messed up, things I could do better.”

There’s plenty Jagusah and Notre Dame’s other tackles did well at the end of last season when they were thrust into lead roles. There’s also plenty they have to do better for Notre Dame to play in a different kind of bowl game in a different venue this December.

(Photo of Tosh Baker: Mattie Neretin / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top