Sam Mustipher brings toughness, smarts to Notre Dame's center position
SOUTH BEND — For a guy who came to Notre Dame strongly considering a curriculum of rocket science, there’s not a whole lot that can make junior Sam Mustipher shrug.
Except, perhaps his evolution to playing center for the Irish football team, a position he had never so much dabbled with in practice before December of 2014, at the tail end of his redshirting freshman season.
“I have no clue,” the 6-2, 310-pound junior said Wednesday of the decision to convert him from guard to tackle. “They just told me during bowl season, ‘We want you to start snapping balls.’ I said, ‘I’ve never snapped a ball in my life.’ But it worked out.”
A combination of toughness, drive, smarts and perhaps a little destiny are why Mustipher finds himself in the starting lineup Saturday, when Notre Dame (1-2) hosts Duke (1-2), rather than an experiment gone amiss.
His template for learning the position was another player who came to Notre Dame with zero previous center experience, Nick Martin, a second-round pick of the Houston Texans and the projected starting center for the team until an August ankle injury that required surgery wiped out his rookie season.
Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s philosophy has always been play your best five linemen, rather than having a linear depth chart. So players move, career arcs bend and adjustments are made among linemen.
“I think snapping stuff (is the hardest part), because you have to become a natural at it,” Mustipher said of learning center. “It has to become second nature.
“The line calls are something you’ve got to study every week. It’s just a part of the game. Being a natural at snapping the ball where I’m not even thinking about it, that’s something you’ve got to work on each and every play.”
The lofty and perhaps unrealistic expectations that come with Hiestand’s rep are that the offensive line is expected to be a finished product in September. That’s even though left guard Quenton Nelson — a converted former five-star tackle, by the way — is the only 2015 starter on the unit that lines up in the same spot he did last season.
“People think he just waves a wand,” Mustipher said of Hiestand, “but there are so many hours we put in together as a group, even when he’s not there. It’s just the culture that we have in the O-Line room. That speaks volumes of him as a coach, because he’s instilled that culture.”
The personal touch Mustipher puts on the center position starts with a defensive mentality he gleaned from getting his first taste of stardom on the high school level as a defensive tackle for Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md.
In fact, his first four college offers — from Illinois, Ohio State, Tulane and N.C. State — all projected him as an interior defensive lineman. That’s the position his younger — but not little — brother, PJ, plays for the McDonogh School. He’s one of the top five prospects nationally at that position and the No. 90 recruit regardless of position in the 2018 class, per Rivals.com, and yes, Notre Dame is recruiting him hard.
“That defensive line background helps me out a lot with offensive line,” ND's Mustipher said. “Leverage, leg drive, getting your hands up right away.”
Layered onto Mustipher’s defensive background is that he’s a student of the game, who’s quite the student in the classroom. His high school GPA hovered around 4.6 on a 4.0 scale, the result of him taking advanced/weighted classes instead of a more comfortable academic path.
“I mean, my parents are both in academic roles, so they instilled that in me at a young age,” Mustipher said. “The degree was the most important thing I was going to get. That’s why I’m at Notre Dame right now.”
He veered away from aerospace engineering — rocket science — he said, because there wasn’t as much flexibility in the curriculum as there was in his other academic interest, cyber security.
Chemistry — as in offensive line chemistry — is his and his linemates’ steepest challenge of the moment.
“If there's one thing that I would critique more than anything else, we've got to finish off our pass protections,” ND coach Brian Kelly assessed of the offensive line’s progress three games into the season.
“We've got some unnecessary hits on the quarterback late after throws (against Michigan State) — not illegal hits. I'm not claiming them to be such. We've got to hang in there with our protections to the echo of the whistle.
“And then there was some movement up front we didn't handle quite as well. We've got to do a better job of that. I think in those two areas, I would be critical. Other than that, we did what we needed to do offensively on the offensive line to have success.”
Duke will certainly test ND’s pass protection. The Blue Devils have amassed 14 sacks, which at 4.67 per game place them tied for third nationally in that category.
“Every aspect of our game right now, run and pass, needs to improve,” Mustipher said. “Communication is key, because each and every snap you’ve got to be on the same page. Once we get that down, then we’ll get things rolling a little bit better.”
Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 20 1/2