Confidence lifted Liam Eichenberg to Notre Dame's top left tackle option
Liam Eichenberg has regrets.
He had a chance to crack Notre Dame’s starting offensive line last season as a sophomore. Instead, fellow sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey beat him out at the right tackle position.
That left Eichenberg as the backup left tackle behind Mike McGlinchey. Eichenberg played in only five games last season as a reserve in lopsided Notre Dame victories.
“I was definitely disappointed in myself, but at the end of the day, I knew I didn’t put enough time into it,” Eichenberg said last week. “That’s how life is. If you don’t put the work in, you don’t see the reward.”
Not long after the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, Eichenberg decided to make a change. He scribbled four priorities for his junior season on a piece of paper.
No. 1: Improve.
No. 2: Technique.
No. 3: Win a starting spot.
No. 4: For my family.
“I look at them before I go to bed every night,” Eichenberg said.
As Notre Dame’s spring practice ends with Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, Eichenberg has moved himself significantly closer to reaching those goals. The latest configuration of the Irish offensive line has Eichenberg working as the No. 1 left tackle.
“I just like his size, his reach,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “He can stand up to the different pass rushes that we’re going to get out there — the bull rush — and he’s long enough to help off the edge. All in all, we’d like him at the left tackle. Nothing is really going to change our mind in terms of moving him to right tackle.”
The 6-foot-6, 303-pounder came to Notre Dame as a promising offensive tackle prospect out of Cleveland St. Ignatius. He received four-star ratings and was ranked among the best offensive tackles in the 2016 class by 247Sports (No. 7 OT) and Rivals (No. 11 OT).
Now he’s positioned to take over the big shoes left by McGlinchey, a consensus All-American.
“With your quarterback’s blind side, you want to have a little bit more length, a little bit more girth so someone just can’t bull rush the quarterback from behind,” said offensive coordinator Chip Long.
“If he’s getting bull rushed from the right, Brandon (Wimbush) can still see it with his vision and take off running. You always want to have a little bit more length and size at that position if you can.”
Eichenberg won’t be as big as McGlinchey (6-9, 315). Not many humans are. But Eichenberg has been driven by the motivation that he might not get another chance if he fails in his junior season.
“This is a major spring for me. It’s that point where either you’re going to play or you’re not going to get that starting job,” Eichenberg said. “I really went into spring looking at that and realizing that. I put everything I could into training for it, watching film, improving my game and my knowledge. I’m able to just go out there and attack and let it loose. It feels good. It feels good to be confident out there.”
Kelly has noticed the difference in Eichenberg. What held him back as a sophomore has not been a barrier this spring.
“It’s been more mental than anything else, his ability to settle down,” Kelly said. “He was a little bit too, I wouldn’t say not confident, but you could see he didn’t play with the kind of confidence that he needed to.
“Emotionally, he’s in his comfort level and a zone now. He would jump offsides easily, miss an assignment easily. That’s maturity. That’s, ‘It’s my time now, and I’m ready for it.’”
With new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn replacing Harry Hiestand, Eichenberg has taken advantage of a clean slate. Part of Eichenberg’s evolution as an offensive lineman has been the relationship with his position coach.
“Overall, coach Quinn has helped me a lot with understanding the game,” Eichenberg said. “It’s also me being committed to understanding the game. I can go up there and meet with him. I wish I would have done that more with coach Hiestand.”
The coaching staff has moved fifth-year senior Alex Bars to left guard to give Eichenberg a veteran presence next to him. That’s left captain Sam Mustipher at center and Kraemer and Hainsey at right guard and right tackle, respectively. The Irish appear poised to enter the summer with those five players as the projected starting line.
The unit has high expectations to meet after winning the Joe Moore Award as the top offensive line in college football last season, but each player was highly regarded as a recruit.
“We’d like to win a national championship, and obviously we want to bring the Joe Moore Award back here,” Eichenberg said of this year’s goals. “That would be the best way to honor the guys who did it before us.”
Those guys haven’t left. McGlinchey and unanimous All-American Quenton Nelson have been working out at Notre Dame in preparation for the NFL Draft, and they make regular appearances at practice. Not just as bystanders either.
Eichenberg detailed a recent practice where McGlinchey walked out onto the field during drills to correct Josh Lugg on his hand placement.
The shadow of McGlinchey and those who came before him could intimidate Eichenberg. He’s stepping into a legacy that will soon include the last three starting at left tackle in the NFL: McGlinchey, Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin.
But confidence eliminates fear, and is the start of Eichenberg leaving those regrets in the past.
“Mike McGlinchey, I can’t explain how much he’s helped me — everything from my hands to my feet to my attitude and demeanor,” Eichenberg said. “He’s definitely set the bar very high as a football player and as a man. I’m excited to follow in his footsteps.”