As the youngest of nine children and five brothers, Notre Dame junior center Zeke Correll understands what it is to compete, bounce back and attempt to elicit attention.
“You’re battling in everything you do,” Correll said. “You always want to win, whether it’s playing checkers with my brothers or shooting hoops in the front yard. I would really be upset whenever I lost.”
The grandson of Ray Correll, who was an All-American guard for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant when he was at the University of Kentucky in the 1950s, Zeke’s father also played for the Wildcats in the 1970s, and then he saw four other brothers before him compete athletically at the collegiate level.
Gabe became a preferred walk-on tight end at Kentucky and started on special teams for several years, while Jesse and Josh played at Division II Malone University in Canton, Ohio.
Caleb, considered the family’s best athlete, played baseball at King University before a cancer diagnosis ended his playing career — but didn’t prevent him from recuperating after intense chemotherapy, graduating cum laude from Notre Dame Law School in 2018 and now practicing law in Chicago.
“That really helps set my competitive edge, and I had guys to look up to growing up and just being able to understand what it’s like to be a college athlete and understand you have to have a competitive edge if you want to succeed, no matter what level it is,” the youngest Correll said.
“Just having those role models in my life, brothers I could look up to or ask questions to, definitely helped my be more competitive and got me to where I’m at today.”
Where he has been at this spring is becoming the current starting center, at least on paper, for the Fighting Irish. Because two-year starter Jarrett Patterson is sidelined due to foot surgery last November, Correll has been the mainstay at snapping the ball after earning starts last year in the Nov. 27 victory at North Carolina and then in the College Football Playoff defeat versus Alabama.
Popular opinion since the start of spring has been that Patterson, who was recruited as a left tackle, would eventually make the position change in order to open the door for Correll to start at center.
That’s been further bolstered by the fact that Correll has worked exclusively at center, whereas other candidates vying for four open starting positions — juniors Andrew Kristofic and Quinn Carroll, sophomore Michael Carmody or even fifth-year seniors Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons — have all worked at multiple positions in an effort to find where the unit, individually and collectively, can best function.
Head coach Brian Kelly made it clear this weekend that while Correll made a positive impression in his two starts last season, he still has to prove himself as the best option at center. If others distinguish themselves more at other positions, then Patterson could always move back to center, where he has been a proven commodity and one of the best in the nation in that role.
Last year at North Carolina, Correll showcased his grit when he played through a first-half ankle injury that sidelined him the following week. It also reiterated to him — as he learned through brother Caleb — that setbacks can always be looming.
“People get injured playing football,” he said. “It definitely changed a little bit of my mindset because people need to understand you can get football taken away from you in an instant, whether it’s from getting hurt or any other circumstance. You just have to be very grateful that we have this game and we have this brotherhood that we get to look forward to every day.”
Center predecessors Nick Martin (2013-15), Sam Mustipher (2016-18) and Patterson had not previously played the position but took to it well enough to where Martin and Mustipher have started in the NFL, while Patterson is on a future path toward it.
Having acquitted himself well, physically and mentally, against a ranked Tar Heels team and in the CFP game against college football’s top superpower Alabama, Correll’s confidence has grown at handling and managing high-pressure situations, especially after arriving as a relatively undersized 270-pound guard prospect. He is now listed at a more robust 6-3, 295 pounds, but questions will carry into August about how the unit eventually will coalesce.
Last year at this time, the offensive line returned a school record 114 career starts. This year that number is 32, with Patterson owning 21 of them.
“We’ve got to produce and have just as good a year if we want to succeed because I think a great offense starts with a great offensive line,” Correll said. “… We need to figure that out and get our identity going.”