SOUTH BEND — Optional doesn’t mean much to Kurt Hinish.
At 8 a.m. on Tuesdays during the Notre Dame football season, director of football performance Matt Balis opens the weight room for an optional workout. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Hinish has been attending the Tuesday morning workouts since his freshman season.
The junior nose guard learned that he feels much better on game days if he fits a third workout into his week. That’s why he shows up almost every Tuesday to what’s turned into a personal workout with Balis.
No one else shows up for the optional workout. Young offensive linemen are required to be in the weight room on Tuesday mornings, but they work with other members of the strength and conditioning staff. That leaves Hinish and Balis to work out together.
“It’s literally just me and coach Balis,” Hinish said. “It’s brutal. I really enjoy it. It’s great.”
Balis told Hinish he doesn’t have to come to the roughly 45-minute workout. If Hinish needs more sleep or his body doesn’t feel right, Balis told him to stay home. Hinish skipped a couple Tuesday workouts in three seasons, but he didn’t feel as strong on game day those weeks. That’s why he keeps coming back.
“He helps me take care of my muscles, tweaks here and there, taking care of my shoulders and doing things for my hips,” Hinish said. “It’s all the little muscles and stuff that we do. But there are some lifts that are pretty challenging that we do together.”
Hinish recruited sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola to attend the workout with him once. He hasn’t been back since.
“Coach Balis is a strong dude,” Hinish said.
When Hinish was at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, his offseason training included helping his father work construction. His dad didn’t take it easy on him.
“I shoveled 14 tons of stone into a wheelbarrow, wheeled it into a backyard and dumped it,” Hinish said. “I did that all in one day. It was one of the worst days of my life.”
When asked to compare the difficulty of a Balis workout with working for his father, Hinish started to pick a side before hesitating.
“I don’t want to say. He’s going to read this,” Hinish said of Balis. “I mean, they’re both extremely taxing in their own ways.”
Hinish knows how the work with Balis has changed him. For his entire Notre Dame career, Hinish has hovered just under 300 pounds.
But when Hinish was a freshman, his lean body mass was 215 pounds. This year, that number reached 250 pounds. Meaning Hinish added 35 pounds of muscle in two years without gaining extra weight.
Those days working construction prepared him for the tenacity needed in Balis workouts.
“I was exposed to that at an early age,” Hinish said. “I was able to kind of adapt as I went in there.”
In the jungle
Kurt Hinish didn’t discover physicality when he arrived at Notre Dame.
His motor and willingness to battle at the point of attack made him into a three-star recruit. He played across the defensive line at Central Catholic, but playing nose guard at Notre Dame required serious adjustments.
“It was a lot different,” Hinish said. “I had to get my pad level lower for one. I had to get a lot stronger for two. I enjoy playing in the middle. It’s not for everybody, but I enjoy it.”
Hinish played in 12 games his freshman season as a reserve nose guard. The position typically isn’t kind to freshmen, but Hinish fought as best he could. He refined his technique heading into a sophomore season backing up graduate student Jonathan Bonner. He recorded 13 tackles in 13 games including two tackles for a loss.
Defensive line coach Mike Elston continued to harp on the fundamentals. But being a good nose guard also requires a bit of an attitude too.
“Using technique and being extremely tenacious, that’s what it boils down to,” Hinish said. “Coach Elston in the D-line room says in order to be able to hold a double team down, in order to be a bad dude in the middle, you have to be a prick.”
Hinish said that comes natural to him.
It’s not easy to measure success for a nose guard on paper. Through 11 games, Hinish has tallied 14 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, one quarterback hurry and one forced fumble. Sixteen Irish players have more tackles than Hinish. He’s tied with backup rover and special teamer Paul Moala.
But Hinish doesn’t count stats to measure success “in the jungle.”
“I call playing down the middle, I say you’re in the jungle,” Hinish said. “If I’m having a good day in the jungle, I’m holding my double teams down, linebackers are flowing across making plays, I’m getting out of my double teams making plays. A good day for me is a win.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not flying to the football at any opportunity.
“In my head, I try to make every tackle on the field,” Hinish said. “That’s why I’m sprinting to the ball. It’s aggravating when the ball is 50 yards down the field and someone makes the tackle, but I’m still sprinting after it trying to make it.”
Hinish doesn’t like leaving the field either. Even though he knows playing in a rotation with freshman nose guard Jacob Lacey keeps him fresh throughout a game and for the entire season, Hinish would stay in the jungle as many plays as possible.
“I’ll play until I’m blue in the face,” Hinish said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
The interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line had to show strength in numbers this season.
Lacey dealt with a shoulder injury, which pushed sophomore nose guard Ja’mion Franklin into the rotation. Backup defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola didn’t play in last week’s 40-7 victory over Boston College after suffering an ankle injury the week prior. Then starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa left the Boston College game with a leg injury. That forced Lacey to play some defensive tackle and freshman Hunter Spears into the rotation too.
Tagovailoa-Amosa’s status for Saturday’s game at Stanford (4 p.m. EST on FOX) remains uncertain. Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa have started all 11 games. Even the healthy defensive linemen are dealing with aches and pains this time of year.
“We’re all practicing right now,” Hinish said. “We’ll see what happens on Saturday.”
Finishing a junior season with 13 starts each right next to each other would be fitting for Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa. They were roommates their first summer as freshmen. That’s when Tagovailoa-Amosa started sharing some of his culture from back home in Hawaii with Hinish.
The chocolate covered almonds were Hinish’s favorite. Tagovailoa-Amosa continues to supply Hinish with sweets. In return, Hinish learned how to make one of Tagovailoa-Amosa’s favorite snacks: musubi. Hinish watched a YouTube video to learn how to replicate the spam and rice dish.
Tagovailoa-Amosa, who missed all but two games last season with a broken foot, will have an extra year of eligibility remaining after next season.
“He’s going to miss me,” Hinish said.
Tagovailoa-Amosa will have to be asked if he’ll miss Hinish’s jokes too.
“I always make fun of Myron and Jayson because they’re always getting single-blocked and I’m getting double-teamed,” Hinish said. “So I’m always making fun of them saying if they don’t make the play, there’s something wrong with them. I’m just waiting for the day I get a single block so I can make a play too.”
Regardless of who is making plays, the Irish defense has returned to top form since the 45-14 loss at Michigan. The Irish have allowed only 13.5 points, 94.75 passing yards and 150 rushing yards per game in the four wins over Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy and Boston College.
“Our front seven has been playing fantastic,” Hinish said. “Our back-end guys in the secondary have been playing great. When they give us some time to get to the quarterback, we’re going to make plays. When the ball’s thrown, they make plays. Our linebackers are fantastic.”
Saturday presents one last chance to impress before the bowl game.
“He’s been steady, taking every snap, every rep,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Hinish. “And you can’t play the kind of defense that we’re playing unless you have somebody that you can count on at that shade position like we have with him all year. He’s been outstanding for us.”
Hinish isn’t ready to quit. He uses the protocol of Navy SEAL training as his guide. When someone wants to quit, all they have to do is ring a bell.
Whether it’s a Tuesday morning with Balis or a Saturday with the rest of the Irish, Hinish doesn’t want any part of that bell.
“I tell myself this all the time,” Hinish said. “Never ring the bell.”