Staying power: McGlinchey won't waffle on the idea of a Notre Dame football revival

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The scariest part of Mike McGlinchey’s offseason bridge between the ugly exclamation point on a 4-8 season out at USC and the first day of spring practice, Wednesday, involved his mustache.

Or rather the Notre Dame offensive tackle’s offseason stab at growing one.

Sensing it might not impress his girlfriend, arguably ND’s most imposing player — physically and dispositionally — got rid of it before he faced that moment of truth on her recent visit.

It’s the only waffling the 6-foot-8, 312-pound grad senior-to-be has done over the past few months.

And that includes his thoughts while tracking last week’s NFL Scouting Combine, where many pro scouts and personnel types believed McGlinchey could have been building his case for being the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2017 draft.

He was the Irish player with the most convenient out, to walk away from the blur of ugly headlines and apocalyptic projections for his head coach, Brian Kelly. He could have done it with a degree in hand and a burgeoning football future elsewhere.

Instead, he's become the loudest, strongest voice pushing back.

And he’s done it with his actions as well.

In eight weeks, under new director of football performance Matt Balis, McGlinchey muscled up 8 to 10 pounds and increased his bench press reps at 225 pounds from a modest 16 to 24.

“I think our program has kind of done a complete 180 in terms of the energy and the attitude around this building,” said McGlinchey, one of a record six captains for 2017 and the only one of them who was a part of last year’s leadership group.

“The changes that coach Kelly has made both in his approach, and also the people that he’s brought into this building, have provided a spark that you can kind of feel that something’s building here.”

What does that look like?

“I just think the way everybody comes to work,” he said. “There’s a life and an energy now that is just tremendous. Everybody’s excited. Everybody is growing. You’re seeing improvement. You’re seeing guys’ bodies change.

“There’s more guys in the film room. There’s more guys working out together. There’s more guys doing drills. It’s just one of those things that the change and the motivation has reached across all aspects of our program, and we’re really excited about where’s it going.

“Obviously, it’s only March … but we’re on the right track.”

What put the Irish on that track has many layers and tentacles, but central to them all were the 93 exit interviews with players in December and Kelly putting those suggestions to work.

Kelly’s offensive-centric lean in practice sessions and the figurehead red tape that kept him more distant from his team than he wanted to be for the first seven years of his ND tenure are the two most welcome casualties of the old regime.

Accessibility, whether it be at the 5:45 a.m., workouts or at other times throughout the day, is something McGlinchey pushed for, and others followed suit.

“I think it’s just the lines of communication and the relationship,” McGlinchey said of how that’s made the team better. “It’s hard to want to go to work and play with somebody and give everything you’ve got if you don’t truly know who they are.

“I’m not saying we didn’t know who coach Kelly was. But we needed to know what’s important first. And we (now) feel as though to coach Kelly his players are what’s most important to him, and he’s shown that.

“He knows he needed to show his face a little more than he was doing. He’s done that to a great extent. I think it’s going to pay dividends. It’s kind of cliché and it’s kind of corny, but relationships and playing with your best friends, it’s a lot easier to do that when everyone gets along and everyone wants to be around each other.”

Individually, McGlinchey admits to having plenty of room for improvement. That also goes collectively for an offensive line that may not have been the most flawed position group in 2016 but arguably was ND’s most underachieving.

On Wednesday’s first spring practice, McGlinchey was back on the left side next to senior guard Quenton Nelson — another projected high draft pick who deferred the NFL dream for at least another year. Senior Sam Mustipher returned at center.

On the right side, though, last year’s starting right tackle, senior Alex Bars, has moved inside to guard, while sophomore prodigy Tommy Kraemer took first-team reps at right tackle.

“I think we’re building that kind of cohesiveness and chemistry that, moving forward, is going to be extremely beneficial,” McGlinchey said. “We got caught in a couple of positions last year that we didn’t want to be in. And we’re going to do our best to eliminate that.”

That includes the plethora of illegal procedure penalties charged to McGlinchey, which by his own count reached 12 in 2016. He also wants to eliminate the growing pains that came from moving from his comfort zone at right tackle to the left side.

And Kelly believes the Irish coaching staff shares in that responsibility.

“We owed him something on our end as well,” Kelly said of McGlinchey’s decision to return for a fifth year. “And that was to physically develop him, to mentally develop him as a captain and as a leader, and then to develop his skill.”

That formula definitely paid off for recent Irish left tackles Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley, each of whom made significant improvement and went in the top half of the NFL Draft’s first round a year after making a decision to stay put.

“I’m not going into the NFL to be a first-rounder on paper,” he said. “I want to be the best that I can be when I get there. I’m setting myself up for a career there. I wanted to be the best offensive tackle in the country this year and learn from the best coach in the country.

“Obviously, it’s a trend here that we want to continue to learn and be the best that we can be and have the success we know that we can have before we make any decisions because other people are telling us that we’re ready to go.

“We know how to look in the mirror, look at the film, and know what we want to do to improve and how we get to where we want to go.”

Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) stands with his teammates during the singing of the Alma Mater following the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech NCAA college football game on Nov. 19. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)