Harry Hiestand's OL culture bolsters next wave at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — For the first time since Jimmy Clausen was finishing his sophomore season with a passing clinic in the Hawaii Bowl and Charlie Weis got a December reprieve to extend his head coaching regime into 2009, there are no Martins on the Notre Dame football roster.

“I’m depressed, I can tell you that,” Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said of the prospect of a Martin-less O-line in 2016, his first at ND.

Hiestand was able to follow up that line with a sincere chuckle, because in some ways it’s as if Zack — a first-round draft pick in 2014 — and Nick — trending toward being a second-rounder 3½ weeks from now — never left.

Senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey now is the voice and the big personality that coaxes a unit with three vacancies to reach for last year’s high standard that included the best rush per carry by an Irish team (5.63) since World War II. And the offensive line is still the last position group to leave the practice field on a regular basis. Same as it ever was.

Three burgeoning prospects — Tommy Kraemer, Parker Boudreaux and Liam Eichenberg — join the rich stable of talent in June. Kraemer, from Cincinnati, and Boudreaux, from Florida, were recently in town to take in spring practice and to do a little recruiting for the 2017 class that follows theirs.

Zack Martin, Trevor Robinson, Chris Watt, Conor Hanratty and Braxston Cave — all former ND offensive linemen — came back to watch ND’s Pro Day Thursday and some stuck around for practice as well. Cave, who played for four different line coaches at ND, wondered aloud how much he could have benefited from four or five seasons of Hiestand instead of just one.

“It’s a culture Harry has created,” said current CBS Sports college football analyst and former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, a Lou Holtz Era standout who also came back for Pro Day and a glimpse of practice.

“Honestly, Harry reminds me a lot of Joe Moore — an extremely bright and talented offensive line coach but an accessible teacher that pays the amount of attention to detail that’s necessary to take a player from being average to being good, and take a good player and make him great.

“He demands a lot. It’s clear on the field and in his room he’s the one who sets the standard, and it’s the players’ job to live up to that standard. And it’s a standard that reminds me of what Joe Moore set for us.”

The late Joe Moore was Taylor’s offensive line coach at ND, and whose name now is on the award given to the nation’s top offensive line unit. Alabama won the inaugural trophy last season, with Notre Dame one of the six finalists.

How Hiestand will build the next wave of offensive talent to eventually get back in that conversation is the same way he has always done.

That starts with putting the best five offensive linemen on the field together, regardless of what they played in high school or their inexperience in college at a particular position. He starts with identifying the tackles and building in from there.

McGlinchey moves from the right side to left tackle to take the spot of soon-to-be first-round draft choice Ronnie Stanley. Right tackle is unsettled, but it appears junior Alex Bars is getting a long audition there, and good reviews, after playing some left guard last season.

“For what we need for our team, definitely he needs to play tackle,” said Hiestand of Bars, coming off a broken ankle suffered last October. “We’ve had to kind of progress him in without overloading him too soon. I really like where he is right now. He’s making great progress.”

Junior Quenton Nelson is the only player on the line who returns in his same spot, at left guard. Junior Sam Mustipher has moved into Nick Martin’s old center spot, with sophomore Tristen Hoge impressing as a backup.

That leaves right guard, the position vacated by Steve Elmer’s decision to retire from football and head into the business world a year before his eligibility expired, as the most unsettled position.

Former tackle Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern, both seniors, are battling for playing time there, with the player who eventually ends up No. 2 likely becoming the first option off the bench at tackle as well.

Former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz, who spent most of his 14-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears, is a regular at ND’s spring practice and lends Hiestand another set of eyes and a fresh perspective.

“He kind of gives me the message and I’ll kind of feed it to the players,” Hiestand said. “But he likes to come and observe and see how the guys work, and I always want his opinion, ’cause he’s a real thoughtful, smart football player.”

The chemistry will come for this Irish line, Hiestand is convinced. If greatness eventually does too, it’ll be in part because of the way the former players have invested in the present.

“I think a thing that’s been helpful is the consistency of the message and the fundamentals,” Hiestand said. “For four years, it’s not going to change, and our standards don’t change. But also what we’re specifically teaching has consistency to it.

“So once the older guys learn it, it’s a lot easier to pass it on than it is every couple of years that they’re learning a new set of fundamentals and points of emphasis and how the coaches coach them. That’s where you see these older guys so important in helping bring these younger guys along.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand speaks to Mike McGlinchey (68) as he takes part in football drills Saturday, March 28, 2015 (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)