Straightening the line at Notre Dame after perplexing 2016 showing

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Harry Hiestand’s only excursion into scaling the coaching ladder was every bit as much a statistical triumph as it was a tormenting epiphany.

Named the offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati for the 1993 season, Hiestand coaxed the Bearcat offense to a 52-spot climb in the national scoring statistics, translating to a 9.4-points-per-game improvement while UC flipped its 3-8 record in 1992 into an 8-3 bottom line.

The year after Hiestand vacated the one-year run at the position, Cincinnati slid from that No. 35 standing in scoring offense all the way to 99th.

That was 24 seasons ago for Notre Dame’s current offensive line coach, but the elation of the promotion and the unexpected emotions that followed are still fresh.

“I quickly got a splitting headache,” he said of his new job offered to him by then-UC head coach Tim Murphy. “I was excited to do it. And then suddenly, I’m in the press box, and I didn’t feel like I was part of the game. I’m not even at the game.

“It was just a totally different feel. So experiencing that, I didn’t say, ‘Man this is my calling. This is what I’ve got to do.’ I actually missed some of the on-the-field interaction and the time it took away from the things that I really enjoy, which is seeing a guy have a good pass set and a good drive block and growing.

“Those are the things that ended up being more important to me.”

Save for some occasional “run-game coordinator” add-on window dressing, the 58-year-old Hiestand hasn’t veered from being an offensive line coach since, all the while evolving into what those in the profession consider as one of the best at it at any level of football.

Which is what makes the 2016 Notre Dame offensive line’s season-long courtship with underachievement so puzzling.

An offensive line, mind you, featuring two starters with obvious first-round NFL Draft potential (left tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Quenton Nelson) and a handful of others who are likely to grow into that kind of trajectory. And all of this enveloped in a culture in which former All-America-caliber players are only a text message away — and occasionally return to campus to help out in person, as the Martin brothers (Zack and Nick) did recently.

Hiestand couldn’t bring himself to put last season’s regression into words on Wednesday, but here’s what it looked like statistically:

• ND’s rushing offense fell from 28th in 2015 to 80th, tying the lowest national ranking in that category in the five seasons Hiestand had been collaborating with Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

• Sacks allowed (85th) and third-down efficiency (65th) also receded significantly from 2015, and both rankings were also five-year worsts.

What Hiestand was willing and able Wednesday to bring expression to was that he isn’t seeing this spring the markers that led to last season’s mass dishevelment.

“We’re really focused on being on the same page at all times and seeing things through one set of eyes,” he said. “So when we look at a defense, we all see the same thing, we all make the same adjustments. We don’t have to speak. We just do, because our eyes are telling us.

“That’s the growth that we’ve been challenging them with. I’ve seen more of that right now, and we’re on the right track.”

Here are some snippets of how that is playing out:

Getting right at left tackle

Grad senior McGlinchey had so many illegal procedure penalties in 2016, his first year starting at left tackle, that the producers of ND’s end-of-the year awards show were inspired to cobble together a lowlights tape of them to tease him with during the production.

McGlinchey, good-naturedly, smiled all the way through it. Then he went about the business of fixing this offseason.

“Just having an incredible desire and determination to do well and to help others do well,” Hiestand assessed as the root of the problem. “So Mike’s big thing is he’s always trying to get everything to work and he forgets about himself sometimes.”

It really wasn’t about growing pains from switching from a comfort zone at right tackle to the newness of playing left tackle, Hiestand insisted.

“He’s been much better with that this spring,” Hiestand said of the false starts, “and that won’t be an issue down the road.”

Hiestand added that McGlinchey’s significant strength gains in the weight room (improving his bench press reps at 225 pounds from 16 to 24) has helped give him better coordination over his 6-foot-8, 312-pound frame.

Back on center stage

That Sam Mustipher’s name didn’t surface among the key position battles this spring speaks to the resolve and resilience of the Notre Dame senior center.

And the talent and intelligence to go along with it.

By the center position’s very nature, blending in and going unnoticed and unappreciated is actually a good thing. In 2016, during two tumultuous weeks, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Olney, Md., product made headlines.

Three imperfect snaps in the remnants of a hurricane, including the last offensive gasp in a 10-3 loss at N.C. State on Oct. 8, and a wild one on a dry track for a safety a week later in a narrow home loss to Stanford pulled the spotlight in Mustipher’s direction.

“It was just something I’ve been hardened to here at Notre Dame,” said ND’s clear No. 1 option at the position of moving beyond the bad snaps.

“When a situation goes bad, you’ve just got to bounce back and figure out what’s going wrong. You’ve got to fix it. You’ve got to come back and respond each and every play.

“I had to be a guy this team could count on. That was something I looked forward to, and I was like, 'I’m going to get this right, because these guys deserve it.'”

Hiestand said Mustipher didn’t just settle for merely fixing the problem. The center took the lead in the winter conditioning program, changing his body-fat composition and challenging others to match his high standards.

But the first step was Hiestand and Kelly throwing their support behind Mustipher in his darkest moments.

“You’re not talking about a total guy falling apart, can’t function with the guys, so that was part of it,” Hiestand said. “Just pointing out that this is easily fixed by you, and he believed that. And he did it and he stuck with it, and coach Kelly stuck with him.

“As bad as all that was, we’re talking about five plays. So we’ve had 550 that are decent. We just work from there. He’s got great personal pride, and the last thing he needed was for anyone to pile on him. We worked through it, because he could do it.”

The up-and-comers

Last year’s starting right guard, Colin McGovern, perhaps heard the footsteps of offensive line prodigies Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg coming and took a grad transfer to Virginia.

Last year’s starting right tackle, senior Alex Bars, then slipped inside to a more natural fit at right guard, leaving two Ohio high school standouts who got away from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Kraemer and Eichenberg, to battle at right tackle.

“They’re competing really well,” Hiestand said. “They both have good qualities about them, the basic fundamentals that you’re looking for in players. They’ve got a great work ethic, a great attitude. They’ve got ability and now it’s just time.”

Hiestand doesn’t feel compelled to name a starter by the end of spring practice if there hasn’t been significant separation between the two redshirt freshmen.

“They’re both getting pretty equal reps and everybody’s kind of used to them now,” he said. “We’re not going to force it.”

Some backups who have caught Hiestand's eye include junior center Tristen Hoge, redshirt freshman center Parker Boudreaux and junior guard Trevor Ruhland as well as early enrolled freshmen Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey.

Embracing the fast track

Pre-snap movement by opposing defenses was a recurring problem for the Irish offensive line that never seemed to get fully solved at any point last season.

While progress this spring appears to be made along those lines on its own merit, new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s desire to play at a faster tempo further enhances those gains.

“Any time you can work at a quick pace, it’s an advantage for an offense,” Hiestand said, “because defenses all line up to your formations and personnel. So all their calls come based on how you align.

“They’re looking to see what you’re doing. The longer time you give them to get lined up, kind of the better they’re going to be structure-wise. So (tempo) puts a stress on them. That part of tempo I think is really powerful.”

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)