Notre Dame repeats 1996 success on offensive line

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Judging from a historical perspective, the Notre Dame football team’s offensive line is in a pretty good place right now.

The current Irish, with 682 rushing yards heading into Saturday’s battle with UMass, rank in rather elite company.

The last Notre Dame team to put up better numbers (725 yards in wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue and Texas) to start a season was back in 1996, when Lou Holtz and Joe Moore were calling the shots, and guys like Mike Rosenthal, Chris Clevenger, Mike Doughty, Rick Kaczenski and Jeremy Akers were making the magic happen along the offensive line.

It was a glorious time, smudged only by overtime losses to Air Force and Southern Cal, and a 13-point setback to Ohio State.

“When I think about 1996, I remember the Washington game (a 54-28 victory, in which the Irish rushed for 397 yards),” said Rosenthal, a Penn High grad who played right guard for that team. “We were able to run the ball whenever we wanted to. That game really popped out.”

With running backs like current Irish running backs coach Autry Denson, Randy Kinder and Robert Farmer, along with fullbacks Marc Edwards and Jamie Spencer, Notre Dame had plenty of options to find the holes and gain the yards.

While going 8-3 in Holtz’s final year at the helm, the Irish averaged 269.5 rushing yards. Besides the impressive start, they were able to maintain the success throughout the season.

“If you’re going to have prolonged success running the ball, you have to have a commitment to it,” said Rosenthal, now the athletic director and head football coach at Austin (Tex.) High School. “Each week it has to be an emphasis; it has to be part of the game plan, no matter what the situation is. Whether it’s third-and-five, third-and-two, first-and-10, there’s gotta be a commitment to it.

“It’s a mindset of play-calling and a mindset of setting it up. You’ve also gotta be prepared early (in a game). The easiest way to get away from a rushing attack is to get (behind) early. Staying balanced and setting up the pass by running the ball, that’s how we operated that year.”

A COMMITMENT

A 227.3-yard rushing average validates the commitment to the ground attack by this year’s Notre Dame team. Even with a lineup loaded with receivers, no fullback, and a limited stable of running backs comprised of C.J. Prosise and true freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, the Irish have a good chance to maintain that success because of the solid offensive line that has been constructed by line coach Harry Hiestand.

The right side of the line — redshirt freshman guard Quenton Nelson (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) and redshirt sophomore tackle Mike McGlinchey (6-8, 310) — are seeing the first every-down action of their career.

And…doing quite well.

“(Nelson and McGlinchey) bring a nasty attitude and a toughness to that group, where you're now met with (left guard Steve) Elmer, (center Nick) Martin and (left tackle) Ronnie (Stanley), that have a lot of game experience,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “You have two tough guys that kind of mold that group into an experienced and tough group.

“(Nelson and McGlinchey) bring a lot to the group. The brains of the operation is still in those veterans. It's still in those three guys that have played a lot, and they kind of set the tone for the group: The attention to detail, holding them to high standards. But there is now a toughness to that group that those guys are hard workers and play hard and play tough. There's a personality that those two bring to the five that has definitely shown itself this year.”

“It’s important for the older guys to embrace the younger guys, and getting (an offensive line meeting) room full of guys for a common cause,” Rosenthal said. “You can tell those guys are pulling for one another; they work together; they eat together; they live together. You can tell they are committed to having a great offensive line group.

“That’s what Notre Dame has had. It’s good to see that back. It’s good to see smash-mouth football again.”

A BRAWLER

Nelson’s emergence as a quality component on the line didn’t surprise Kelly a bit.

“I mean, he's 340 pounds. He can bench press a truck,” Kelly said, only half-joking. “He's physically strong and he moves his feet. That's probably the thing that stands out with him: He's big, he's strong, he's physical, he's got toughness, but he moves his feet really well.”

“Q is a brawler,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt, who goes against Nelson plenty in practice. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed, nasty football player. For me, (Nelson) is the ultimate challenge, physically. There are very few people who are built bigger than Q.”

“(The reputation as a brawler) started when I was younger,” Nelson said. “My dad was always telling me there have been big guys around, but they’re soft. He shaped me into becoming more of a brawler, more of a get-after-you type of guy.”

Adding mobility to his other physical attributes has given Nelson another dimension. He’s not a plodder, like he may have been a few years ago. A re-sculpted body, featuring less fat and more muscle (thus Kelly’s bench press of the truck), has allowed him to become more effective whether it’s opening holes or protecting the quarterback.

“That's really probably the one thing that I don't say surprises you, but when you see a kid that big, it's hard to envision a kid running the way he runs,” Kelly said. “He runs exceedingly well for his size.”

Now, it’s just a matter of the mental part of the position taking hold.

“The toughest pick-up has probably been going against a new team every week,” Nelson said. “Texas was a three-down (linemen), two-gap team. Virginia had a penetrating defense, comes off the ball really hard.”

OLD DAYS

When Rosenthal has time to sit back and watch the current Irish offensive line, he sees a lot of himself and the rest of his line mates. It’s the attitude and the approach.

And, it’s certainly no accident. Rosenthal sees a lot of Joe Moore in the way Hiestand readies his line.

“We had a veteran group,” Rosenthal said. “There was a commitment to running the ball back then. It was a different era; the Joe Moore Era.

“You can tie the two eras together. Hiestand is a Joe Moore disciple. There’s a commitment to the running game, and a commitment to becoming dominant run-blockers.

“There wasn’t a lot of work on pass-protection back then. We were going to get downhill; we were going to run the ball. That was our M.O.

“You start practice with run-blocking drills and you finish practice with run-blocking drills. You were able to wear down defenses.”

It didn’t take long for Hiestand to impress Rosenthal.

“We talked a coupled times on the phone,” Rosenthal said. “He reached out to a lot of us older guys. That was great. It hadn’t happened in a long time.

“The first time he called me out of the blue, we had a two-hour conversation talking about Joe Moore, life, offensive line play. I like what (Hiestand’s) doing; I like his attitude; I like his work ethic.

“He gets the most out of those kids. They play hard for him and they respect him. We had the same respect for Joe Moore back in the day.”

Hiestand obviously respects and embraces history. There’s something to be said for drawing on the guys who helped carry on the tradition, and have passed the torch to the current group.

Commitment can be a common denominator; something that bridges two decades of line play.

Something that sets the Irish apart from the rest.

Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson (56) blocks a Georgia Tech defender Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, during the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ