Liam Eichenberg pushed around 300-pound defensive linemen — even with slightly impaired vision — but trying to put a contact lens back into an eye that was becoming increasingly swollen may have been the toughest task he faced against Florida State last Saturday night.
Two plays into the second quarter of Notre Dame’s 42-26 victory over the Seminoles, the fifth-year left tackle went to his knees after being poked in the eye. He’s still not sure if the blow came from defensive tackle Marvin Wilson or linebacker Stephen Dix Jr. Eichenberg joked in the ensuing days that fellow Irish offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson did it to him.
Regardless of the culprit, the outcome put Eichenberg on the ground in pain — though he never mentioned the word in an interview Tuesday — without a contact lens in his left eye. Eichenberg went to the locker room to try to put a contact in his eye.
“It took a full quarter to get it in,” Eichenberg said.
The swelling quickly made Eichenberg look like Rocky when he asked his trainer to cut him to help him see. Eichenberg applied ice around his eye to reduce the swelling.
“My teammates just kind of looked at it and were like, ‘Oh my God.’ I really didn’t realize how bad it was until I got into the locker room,” Eichenberg said. “I could still kind of see out of it. I just didn’t realize how swollen it was at the time.”
An equipment manager added a clear visor to Eichenberg’s helmet for added protection to prevent any fingers from slipping through his facemask. Then Eichenberg retook the field in the second half.
“I could see the majority of the time, but towards the end of drives it was pretty swollen,” Eichenberg said. “So I had to come off and ice it. I was just happy to be out there. Happy I could continue to play.”
Seeing only a majority of the time isn’t ideal for any athlete. While playing left tackle, Eichenberg certainly needed to have the ability to identify defensive alignments and blitzes to complete his assignments. Anything to his outside must have been harder to see. Eichenbeg’s eye was swollen to the point where it looked like he was constantly squinting.
Yet Eichenberg still didn’t allow a sack, and the Irish offensive line dominated on the way to 353 rushing yards. Three days after the game, Eichenberg still had redness in his eye and bruising around the socket.
“When I got injured, there was no thought in my mind that was like ‘I want to stay out for the whole game,’” Eichenberg said. “My first thought was I need to go back in the game.
“You have to take care of business no matter what. That’s the biggest thing. I can tell you a lot of guys have dealt with a lot of things in past seasons and they were able to be out there. I felt like it was no exception for me.”
That’s an attitude that Eichenberg credits to the great offensive linemen that came before him. From the time he was a recruit to the time he became a young player at Notre Dame, Eichenberg learned the culture created by former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and embraced by future first-round NFL Draft picks Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.
Those examples still inform Eichenberg’s decision even when his eye is black and blue.
“All those guys I met, it was like they would do anything for this program, especially for each other on the offensive line,” Eichenberg said.
But the message Eichenberg, one of the team’s five captains, sent by reentering the game with a beat-up eye resonated beyond the offensive line. Head coach Brian Kelly said teammates that might not normally interact with Eichenberg regularly were showing their respect for him after the game.
“They had a lot of respect for him anyway, but it solidified the kind of respect that they had for him as a leader on our football team,” Kelly said. “He had it obviously from the guys that he goes against: the defensive linemen.
“When you see guys like cornerbacks and guys that he doesn’t see a lot and DBs go up to him and talking to him, you can tell that had an effect on other players in our program about him being gritty and fighting through to get back out on that football field.”
Of course the quarterback Eichenberg is asked to protect, Ian Book, was grateful for Eichenberg’s dedication.
“It’s crazy,” Book said. “Looked like he got hit right in the face. He’s just strong and he wants to be out there. He’s tough. That’s what Liam showed. He got back out there when he could when he could see.”
Eichenberg will be back on the field Saturday when the No. 4 Irish (3-0, 2-0 ACC) host Louisville (1-3, 0-3) in Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). The Irish offensive line will look to continue its strong start to the season.
“It’s important to have momentum going into the next week,” Eichenberg said. “Florida State had good defensive linemen, good ends, good interior guys, good linebackers. It was definitely nice running the ball well.
“But at the same time, Louisville’s completely different. It’s structured completely different.”
Louisville ranks No. 42 out of 76 FBS teams in rushing defense by allowing 156.8 yards per game. Through three games, the Irish rank fifth in rushing offense with 270.7 yards per game.
An offensive line playing that well at Notre Dame has become more of an expectation than a dream. Being considered one of the top offensive lines in the country isn’t enough for offensive line coach Jeff Quinn’s group. The Irish offensive line wants to be named the best by winning the Joe Moore Award.
Pressure comes with that kind of standard. But the phrase “pressure is a privilege,” as shared by ND football’s mental performance consultant Amber Selking, has resonated with the group. With that pressure comes a drive to be even better.
“Obviously, we need to improve on a lot of things, but pass protection has been solid. Our run game’s getting a lot better. We need to improve a lot in both areas,” Eichenberg said. “A lot of technique needs to be cleaned up and a lot of fundamentals and assignments as well. There’s always room to improve. We’re going in the right direction. We just need to keep going.”