ND All-American Aaron Taylor provides an inside look at an offensive line evolution

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Before there were back-to-back All-America seasons, there was chaos.

Well, sort of controlled chaos.

Aaron Taylor was a true sophomore offensive guard for Notre Dame in 1991, wedged between veteran left tackle Lindsay Knapp and center Gene McGuire.

“I was out there, and I didn’t know if the play was going left or right,” Taylor, now 44 and a college football analyst for CBS Sports, recalled. “Those guys were literally telling me, ‘You block 74. You block 52.’ ”

And when Taylor came to take a peek at ND football’s offensive line last spring, admittedly flush with talent and promise, he construed the high expectations as a mirage when he saw a lot of the same things he saw in himself during his sophomore season.

Unfinished products.

Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand didn’t need more skill for an offensive line that would go on to be consistently inconsistent in the fall. He needed a microwave, or maybe even a wand.

“We sit here and scratch our heads about what went wrong for that line during a 4-8 season,” Taylor said. “What do you think they were doing internally? Reps, experience can make so much of a difference. If you’re looking for magic, that’s the closest you’re going to get to it.

“My junior year, the game started slowing down. So instead of going up to the line of scrimmage and going, ‘Oh (crap). Is this the one where I take this guy if that happens,’ I was, ‘This is how I’m going to step. This is how I’m going to keep my back-side arm tucked inside, so I can shoot it at the top of his number.’

“The details start getting more refined. Your thought process changes. You know where the play’s going. You’ve heard that call. You’ve run it. You’ve seen it on the board a million times. As guys get older, you start refining and tinkering.”

There are four returning starters this season on the O-Line, with a pair of precocious redshirt freshmen — Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg — battling for the starter’s spot at right tackle. In 2016, there were three new starters, and a fourth — Mike McGlinchey — at a new position, left tackle.

The Irish staged spring practice No. 12 on Wednesday, the only session in a nine-day lull, before resuming next Wednesday with No. 13 of 15. The Blue-Gold Game on April 22 will cap the spring.

The newness alone doesn’t fully explain how an offensive line with two projected first-round draft choices, McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson, could be a part of a unit that ranked 85th nationally out of 128 in sacks allowed in 2016, 80th in rushing offense and 65th in third-down conversions — all matching or exceeding the worst showings in Hiestand’s first five seasons with ND.

The strength and conditioning piece, for one, can’t be overstated in that formula for muted success. McGlinchey improved his rep threshold at 225 pounds from 16 to 24. To give that some perspective, former ND quarterback Brady Quinn did 24 reps at the 2007 NFL Combine, and punter Ben Turk, also freaky strong for his position, did 26 at ND’s Pro Day in 2013.

If there is to be a true renaissance for the offensive line on the field, the groundwork is being laid now in spring practice.

“It’s more about teaching than having significant consequences with wins and losses,” said Taylor, who spent four years under head coach Lou Holtz and iconic line coach Joe Moore before becoming a first-round NFL Draft choice in 1994.

“But the intensity, the attention to detail, the relentless effort to get us to be the best versions of ourselves. That was consistent. That never changed under Joe Moore.

“Harry Hiestand is an apple that didn’t fall very far from the (Joe Moore) tree. It was their job to set the standard, and it was our job to live up to it. We didn’t get an opportunity to set the standard.

“I don’t care who we’re playing. This is how we do it every single time. That’s how you get Zack and Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley and all the other players Harry has sent to the NFL. No matter who is lined up over you. Whether it’s November or February.

“Now I think these players are in a position to live up to that standard.”

Taylor plans to check on their progress in June when he comes for a visit. He expects to see the decisions of McGlinchey and Nelson to defer the NFL dream for a year in full bloom at that point.

“I think it’s a credit to both sides,” Taylor said. “I think it’s a credit to how good of a teacher Harry is, and I think it’s a credit to those guys to be smart enough to listen to good advice.

“There’s a lot of guys who want to go to the NFL, because they don’t like school. They want money, because they have financial needs. But all things being equal, your best chance to go to the NFL and produce and be a player is refining your game.

“DeShone Kizer was a different story at quarterback. He and (coach) Brian Kelly both agree he could have used another year in college, but from a business standpoint it made sense to go now. For these guys it didn’t.

“I’m sure Harry went around and called all his guys in personnel departments and coaches around the league and said, ‘Hey, watch these guys. What do you think?’

“Then he gave McGlinchey and Nelson the straight dope. And they listened.”

The more 1s vs. 1s, they and the rest of the offensive line has in practice between now and the Sept. 2 opener at Temple, the better chance they have of accelerating their growth curve, Taylor said.

“Iron sharpens iron. Steel sharpens steel,” he said.

“The great thing about spring,” Taylor continued, “is that it really is a fresh start. That’s the good thing about the sport of football. There’s always next week, next season, next practice. There’s always something ahead that helps you put behind whatever it was you want to forget or improve upon.

“So you could take the same core groups of guys in a room and interchange one or two pieces, and that could make a significant difference in the output and production on the line. So can time, reps and experience. You’re going to win with that.”

Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey, right, and Quenton Nelson both deferred their NFL dreams to have a chance to be a part of an Irish offensive line revival. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)