No time share regret for Notre Dame freshman OL Robert Hainsey

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Robert Hainsey’s favorite questions about the future are the ones that include Houston Griffith in them.

Griffith is a 6-foot, 194-pound safety, with cornerback speed and skills, and the highest-ranked recruit to date in Notre Dame’s 2018 football recruiting class (No. 35 overall, per Rivals.com). He’s also one of seven early enrollees among the 21 players the Irish inked during last week’s early-signing window.

That means Griffith and Hainsey, the latter the most impactful player this season from the 2017 Irish class, will be reunited as teammates in less than a month, when winter semester classes begin.

“Great player. Great family. Great kid,” Hainsey, a freshman offensive tackle, offered up about fellow IMG Academy product Griffith. “He’ll show up like he wants to start. And I love that, because that should be his goal.”

Hainsey himself enters Monday’s Citrus Bowl matchup in Orlando, Fla., with 16th-ranked LSU (9-3) as a semi-starter. He and redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer have extended their season-long time share at the right tackle position to a 13th game on an offensive line deemed the nation’s best by the Joe Moore Award selection committee.

The 14th-ranked Irish (9-3) arrived in Orlando on Tuesday, staged their first post-Christmas Break practice Wednesday afternoon at Freedom High School, and headed out to their first theme park experience shortly thereafter.

“It was interesting, because we had been doing it in practice,” the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Hainsey explained of the evolution of the every-other series rotation with the 6-6, 314-pound Kraemer. “(Offensive line) coach (Harry Hiestand) didn’t specifically say we were going to do it in the games.

“When he finally told us, we’re like, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do.’ I mean Tommy and I are best friends. We trust each other.’ When he’s on the field, I’m his eyes. I’m watching every play. When he comes off the field, I tell him what I saw and he does the same.

“I don’t think we ever saw it as competing. We both knew (back in training camp) we weren’t there yet. So we worked together to get there.”

Actually, Hainsey’s journey first accelerated when he made the heart-tugging decision at the end of his sophomore year in high school to leave Gateway High in Monroeville, Pa. — near Pittsburgh — and transfer to the IMG Academy boarding school experience in Bradenton, Fla.

Suddenly, even the competition in practice was a step up from what he saw in games in talent-rich Western Pennsylvania. Nine IMG players in Hainsey’s recruiting cycle, including himself at No. 103, were ranked by Rivals among the nation’s top 130 prospects.

Five players in the 2018 class are in the top 54 and another four IMG products are scattered through the rest of the top 250.

All this from a football program that just finished its fifth year of existence.

Four IMG alums in Monday’s Citrus Bowl — Hainsey and sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr. for ND; starting free safety Grant Delpit and backup wide receiver Drake Davis — will be playing two hours to the Northeast from where they finished high school.

“As hard as it was to leave Western Pennsylvania behind, I would never have been this ready this soon at Notre Dame without making the move,” Hainsey said. “It made me a better player and a better person.”

And the sports science piece — featuring a nutritionist, sports scientist and mental conditioning coach — enhanced his growth curve even more.

David Ballou, ND’s co-director of strength and conditioning under Matt Balis, was head of the strength and conditioning program at IMG before coming to ND last January, roughly the same time Hainsey did.

“Coach Ballou was really good with power and speed at IMG, and that’s continued here, so that’s been great,” Hainsey said. “Our sports science guy would ask me to help him out on some stuff, so I would test things out for him.

“Like I’d run on a treadmill and he’d check to see how the muscles were firing. And if they weren’t firing right, he’d have me do a different exercise to make them fire the right way, so you could go faster.”

Hainsey has been seemingly been moving fast forward ever since. And after the bowl game, he may be on the move again.

Grad senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard and Outland Trophy finalist Quenton Nelson will move on to the NFL Draft, both likely as first-rounders.

Sophomore Liam Eichenberg is the penciled-in favorite to be the next starting left tackle, which could change. But either Kraemer or Hainsey seems destined to fill a void at guard, leaving the other one to man the right tackle position full time in 2018.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen with that,” Hainsey said. “I just want to focus on this game and then worry about that in January.

“Whatever happens, I’ve learned a lot from this year that will help me in the seasons ahead. I got a chance to play against some guys that are going to be in the NFL next year and learned the techniques to make blocks against them in key situations, even though I was only a freshman. That’s exciting.”

Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey (72) works against Miami (Ohio)’s Brad Earnest (9) during ND's rout of the RedHawks on Sept. 30 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)