Harry Hiestand putting pieces together for Notre Dame offensive line

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Massive construction projects normally happen in the summer.

Harry Hiestand likes to do his work in the spring, then save the warm weather for tinkering and fine tuning.

That’s how the offensive line gets built in the Notre Dame football program.

Give Hiestand some big strong bodies, some experience, and a challenge – then watch the magic happen.

Losing guys like left tackle Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt, who were fixtures on the offensive line and high NFL draft picks, was hardly a reason for panic. It was just an opportunity for Hiestand to roll up his sleeves and find a new combination that can prove to be effective.

Start with Nick Martin at center. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound redshirt junior and the younger brother of Zack is the anchor of the trench crew. Christian Lombard (6-5, 315, grad student) and Steve Elmer (6-6, 317, sophomore) were going to play somewhere. Ronnie Stanley (6-6, 318, junior) seemed ticketed for left tackle. That left guards Matt Hegarty (6-4, 300, senior) and Conor Hanratty (6-5, 309, senior) and tackle Mike McGlinchey (6-8, 300, sophomore) to determine who the best fit was.

The possibilities were intriguing:

If McGlinchey shined, move Elmer to guard.

If Hegarty or Hanratty had the edge, move Elmer to tackle.

“Steve’s more of a tackle athlete, his size, his length,” Hiestand said.

“With (Hiestand), he’s a technician,” said Nick Martin. “It’s all about technique. He focuses on fundamentals. Then you go into film study and evaluation to figure out who plays better with (whom).”

“It’s a process of guys continually working and rotating through, playing next to each other,” Hiestand said. “That’s what this time of year is for.”

“(The new line is) a different animal, but we’ve got guys coming back; guys shuffled around who are able to play multiple positions,” Martin said. “We’ve spent a lot of time together.”

Cohesive happens for more than the two hours on the practice field.

“We’re a very cohesive group,” Martin said. “We’ve spent a lot of time playing next to each other.

“There’s an ‘on the field’ aspect (to the building of a cohesive unit). We’re so tight off the field. We’re always hanging around each other; always going to dinner; whatever it is. We know each other so well, like we’re in each others’ heads.”

It will have to be a “one for all” approach to improve on last year’s numbers. With a veteran group, the Irish rolled up 151 rushing yards, 255 passing, and 27 points a game last season. The Irish line was second nationally, only to Toledo, in sacks allowed in 2013.

With a defense that will likely need some help, offensive production will have to pick up.

At the same time, the tempo will increase. Head coach Brian Kelly has vowed to run his attack with a fast pace, trying to get whatever edge he can.

“The biggest thing is practicing at the speed (Kelly) wants us to play in the game,” Hiestand said. “There’s no time to sit there and mull things over. You’ve gotta make some quick decisions.

“It’s not necessarily harder. It’s a matter of focus. If you let them, they’ll stand there for three minutes and have a discussion on how we’re going to block something.

“They’ll condition to how we go. Early, it’s always harder. You’re hearing new things; you’re seeing new defenses; you’re installing new plays that you haven’t done since spring. You don’t connect the dots as fast. Now (late in preseason camp), we’re much more comfortable with moving fast.”

As the Aug. 30 opener against Rice draws near, the Irish offensive line rotation seems to be in place. Stanley (tackle) and Hegarty (guard) will be to the left of Martin and Lombard (guard) and Elmer (tackle) will be to the right. Hanratty will be the first guard off the bench and McGlinchey the first tackle. Hegarty can also fill in at center if necessary.

“This group is working hard; making progress,” Hiestand said. “They’re benefiting from having watched how Zack (Martin) and Chris (Watt) did their work and did their business. There’s some good steady improvement happening, because they learned that work ethic. There’s no better way to learn it than by an example.”

“It’s a process of guys continually working and rotating through, playing next to each other. That’s what this time of year is for.”

Almost time to cut the ribbon on the project.

Step up for three walk-ons

Connor Cavalaris’ best football résumé talking point heading into his senior season as a Notre Dame football walk-on was the two tackles he made in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.

Until now.

On Friday, Cavalaris and two other Irish football walk-ons were awarded scholarships by head coach Brian Kelly. That brings ND’s total to 84 scholarship players, one short of the NCAA-allowed maximum. That total is inclusive of the four players being held out of practice and games during the ongoing academic fraud investigation.

Joining Cavalaris, a senior cornerback, as former walk-ons are senior quarterback Charlie Fiessinger and grad student/running back Tyler Plantz.

All three have seen at least one cameo of game action, but only the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Cavalaris has recorded stats. He is a product of Lake Forest (Ill.) High School.

Plantz is a 5-9, 219-pounder from Frankfort, Ill. (Providence Catholic), while Fiessinger (6-1, 194) from Mason, Ohio, is a former high school teammate of ex-ND quarterback Andrew Hendrix at Cincinnati Moeller.

Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand talks to players during practice inside Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)