How the Harry Hiestand factor plays out at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

He was hardly a long shot, but Mike McGlinchey’s final recruiting branding by ratings giant Rivals.com four cycles ago was modest enough that his claim to fame beyond high school wasn’t necessarily destined to have anything to do with football.

In 10th grade, McGlinchey dunked on his cousin’s head while playing basketball at a family graduation party, and that cousin just happened to be Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

“The entire party was going crazy,” said the now 6-foot-8, 310-pounder of the 6-4 Ryan. “It was fun.”

It’s now an obscure footnote, though, instead of defining because of who McGlinchey is evolving into.

The Notre Dame senior, with a fifth-year option in 2017 that may go unused, is looking more each day like a guy who could be the third Irish starting left tackle in succession to become an NFL first-round choice.

Those who preceded him, Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin, came to Notre Dame as promising prospects but certainly not can’t-miss ones.

Stanley was the No. 176 player overall nationally in the 2013 class. That would translate to an early sixth-round pick in NFL terms. Instead he was the sixth player taken in the first round last spring.

Martin was completely omitted from the top 250 in 2009 by Rivals, which would project him eventually as an undrafted player. Instead he was selected with the 16th overall pick in 2014.

McGlinchey too landed outside the top 250 as a high school senior. He was framed as the 22nd-best offensive tackle prospect nationally. Now he’s considered one of the three or four best in college football. He credits Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand with significantly altering his trajectory.

“The other guys that have gone on to the NFL will be the first to tell you — coach Hiestand is the biggest reason that they’re there,” McGlinchey said.

It’s the same apparently with prodigies, too. Junior Quenton Nelson is the highest-rated offensive lineman coming out of high school that Hiestand has either recruited or inherited during his five seasons at ND — No. 29 in the 2014 class nationally and one of only 18 five-star prospects, encompassing all positions, to sign with ND in the Rivals Era (2002-present).

Nelson is ND’s starting left guard and regarded as one of the best nationally at his position. Sports Illustrated recently named the 6-5, 325-pounder a first-team preseason All-American.

True freshman Tommy Kraemer, the second-highest-rated offensive lineman in Hiestand’s time at ND (No. 41 in the class of 2016) is in a three-man race for the starting right guard spot as ND on Wednesday heads into its fifth practice overall of training camp and its first in full pads.

If Kraemer — a future tackle — can pull it off, he’d be only the second true freshman offensive lineman at ND to start a season opener since the NCAA reinstated freshman eligibility in 1972.

“He’s the best teacher” McGlinchey said of what the Hiestand factor looks like. “He coaches fundamentals, and you’ll start doing fundamentals in your sleep, because all you’re doing is thinking about them during camp.

“He’s such an incredible teacher, pays such attention to detail. He cares so much and he sets a standard for us in our room that if you don’t meet it, he’s going to hold us accountable to it. That’s what makes our group so special.

“We’re going to continue the tradition that we’ve had since he’s been here and we’re excited about the opportunity.”

For McGlinchey, in particular, Hiestand’s priorities were about getting McGlinchey to dial down the emotion in his game that scattered his focus, and physically working through some bad habits that came with playing small-school competition at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.

“It’s all over the place,” McGlinchey said of the other areas of improvement. “Everything he’s preached to me since the day I got here was about getting faster, stronger and caring more about your technique and understanding how to get better. The mental part of the game of how to control your mind and how to think about playing football.

“There isn’t a stone left unturned for him, and that’s why he’s had so much success here and why we’ve had so many guys that have been such good football players. It’s because of him.”

But it doesn’t come easily or quietly.

Hiestand has a raw edge in practice, and his players since his arrival in 2012 have consistently been the first position group to arrive on the field for practice and the last to leave it.

Yet Matt Hegarty and seldom-used backup Bruce Heggie are the only players separating Hiestand from having the only position group at ND not to have a transfer over the past five years.

Hegarty was a grad-style transfer to Oregon. Heggie, who came to ND in 2010 as a defensive lineman, was a grad-style transfer in search of some playing time at Ball State, not someone looking to escape.

“I kind of knew what I was getting into when I came in here,” McGlinchey said of Hiestand’s high demands. “It wasn’t really a culture shock at all. I knew how intense it was going to be. I knew how intense I needed to be about it, and his mind set is the only mind set you should take to play and get better as a football player.

“He transformed our offensive line when he came five years ago. And everybody who comes in after that has followed suit.

“The passion he brings each and every day is something so special for us. It rubs off on all of us. He cares deeply about each and every one of us in our offensive line room. And he puts that into his work.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (left) is seeing a stronger and more consistent left tackle Mike McGlinchey this spring. (Tribune File Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)