Analysis: No culture shock so far for new Notre Dame O-Line coach Jeff Quinn

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It wasn’t just that Jarrett Patterson came from three time zones away, on his own dime, to take in a Notre Dame spring practice last Saturday.

It was that he had company.

All three of the other members of Notre Dame’s newest wave of offensive linemen — all set to enroll as freshmen in June — also got a look in person at the encore version of the 2017 Joe Moore Award winner inside ND’s Loftus Center, and how new line coach Jeff Quinn was configuring it.

The alignment, that took the better part of spring’s first 14 practices to arrive at, will be rolled out for the public to see and scrutinize Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in the 89th-annual Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m.; NBC Sports Network).

To fit in the broadcast window, the game will last precisely two hours. To fit a roster too thin at some spots to field two complete and competitive teams, an offense-versus-defense format will be used, with contrived scoring opportunities for the defense that include — but are not limited to — three points for a three-and-out.

“We have an awful lot to prove, and I do too,” Quinn said of himself and his starting five, from left tackle to right tackle: Liam Eichenberg, Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey.

“And certainly I’m excited about that challenge.”

The 55-year-old Quinn — kind of a more-caffeinated, more G-rated, more slogan-slinging version of his ultra-revered predecessor, new Chicago Bears O-Line coach Harry Hiestand — admitted Thursday that he’s excited just by the process of simply waking up every day.

“Certainly, to be the guy who’s in charge of that (offensive line coaching) position just every morning, I thank the dear Lord for that opportunity,” he added.

Most thankful perhaps along those lines is that the rich offensive line culture that Hiestand created and cultivated over his successful six-year run at ND is still saturating everything Quinn has been trying to accomplish in his first three months on the job.

And if Quinn is going to shine long-term and chase the critics that surmised head coach Brian Kelly hired the most familiar — and not the most capable — candidate through a nationwide search, that culture must persist and proliferate.

That it only took minimal coaxing from Quinn to get Patterson (California), Luke Jones (Arkansas), Cole Mabry (Tennessee) and John Dirksen (Ohio) to put together a linemen’s weekend for a jump-start of their football life at ND was an encouraging first step.

For recent All-American Mike McGlinchey to be a constant visitor to the spring practices and vaunted former sidekick Quenton Nelson a common guest/mentor as well continues another Hiestand staple of great players coming back and giving back.

“You stood the hair up on my back,” Quinn said when asked about that part of the culture to which former All-American Aaron Taylor was a part of last Saturday.

“It just strengthens the unit to know that these guys care that deeply, and then it holds them accountable to make sure that they continue that tradition and that standard of excellence here at Notre Dame.

“It’s inspiring … and it helps elevate the current players’ games, because that’s what’s happened over the course of many, many, many, many, many, many years. We need to uphold that, and we have a responsibility to do that.”

The incoming freshmen not only got a taste of that, but they also got introduced to Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program and got to hang out with the current offensive linemen away from a football setting, another Hiestand tradition.

“To draw closer relationships and develop those relationships that are so valuable to winning and being successful,” Quinn qualified.

As far as Quinn’s own relationships with the line, the trick was seemingly marrying his own style with a lot of continuity from the Hiestand regime, but the early returns are that it seems to be working.

“When you turn on the film, you see great effort,” he said.

One might also eventually see a rotation, like the Hainsey-Kraemer tag team at right tackle last fall. But while Quinn is open to it, he’s not ready to commit to one.

Josh Lugg, who’s taken reps at every position but center; center/guard Trevor Ruhland, tackle Aaron Banks and guard/center Dillan Gibbons would be the players in play for that if it does eventually happen.

Quinn certainly hasn’t been afraid to make bold moves. He shifted incumbent right guard Alex Bars — arguably his best offensive lineman — to left guard, converted tackle Kraemer to a guard, and put his least experienced of the five, promising junior Liam Eichenberg, at the most critical line position — McGlinchey’s vacated left tackle spot.

The two starting left tackles prior to McGlinchey, Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley, went on to become first-round NFL Draft choices. Next Thursday night, McGlinchey is poised to be the third in succession.

“Right now, I love his length.” Quinn said of the 6-foot-6, 303-pound Cleveland, Ohio, product. “He’s got great strength. He sees things quickly. He moves well. He’s able to adjust appropriately to the movement that defenses present to the offensive line, and the blitz.

“He’s been really steady. His confidence continues to improve each and every single day. You talk about high care factor, he cares. and he knows the importance of what he’s doing at that position and the gentlemen who have been there before. He takes that very serious every day.”

Quinn also takes ND’s past seriously — and apparently its future as well. He closed on Patterson late in the last recruiting cycle and has the Irish well-positioned early for a banner offensive line haul in the 2019 class.

John Olmstead, a 6-6, 290-pound, four-star prospect from Metuchen, N.J., could be the first commitment in that position group for the Irish when he announces his college decision on Friday afternoon around 3 p.m. EDT.

Michigan, Minnesota, Ole Miss and home-state Rutgers are also in the running.

“I think when a young man comes on our campus, they see and the parents see that their sons are going to come to Notre Dame and be a part of a very special, elite group of guys that are all about one another.

“It’s not about one individual. and then certainly, the academic piece, the community piece — those are all very, very important parts to our success in terms of securing the recruits and getting them what they need to see.

“There’s a spirit here like no other place that I’ve ever been. We want to demonstrate that and show that each and every time a young man comes up on this campus.”

Quinn’s re-entry into the college football world as an offensive line coach — after spending the past eight as a head coach (University of Buffalo), an assistant strength coach (ND) and an offensive analyst (ND) — will be Sept. 1 against Michigan.

The Wolverines have most of their starters back from a defense that largely dominated opposing offensive lines (7th nationally in sacks, 18th in rushing defense, 1st in third-down defense, third in total defense).

What will define Quinn ultimately won’t be what happens in that game or what happens in Saturday’s mirage-fest. What will define him is whether he can build on these early steps of making the offensive line tradition come alive through a powerful culture.

For starters

Tight end Cole Kmet will get his first college start on the mound for the Notre Dame baseball team, Friday against visiting Virginia Tech (16-21, 6-12 ACC).

Kmet’s first 17 appearances came in relief for the Irish (15-22, 6-12) and included seven saves. The freshman left-hander has a 4.32 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings.

He’s expected to see plenty of action at tight end in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

Alabama-ND series

Notre Dame finally made it official Thursday — and way, way into the future.

The Irish and Alabama have formalized their previously reported home-and-home series, with both games being season openers.

They’ll clash Sept. 2, 2028, at Notre Dame Stadium, and Sept. 1, 2029, at Bryant–Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Notre Dame leads the series, 5-2.

New QB offer

Notre Dame’s search for a 2019 quarterback hasn’t ended. Two days after landing a commitment from 2020 quarterback Drew Pyne, junior Graham Mertz reported an Irish offer Wednesday night.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound recruit from Mission (Kan.) Blue Valley North has been committed to Wisconsin since October, but that hasn’t stopped schools like Notre Dame from trying to poach him. Mertz’s offer list includes Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Miami and more.

Mertz, who visited Notre Dame last June, finished his junior season 259-of-434 passing (62 percent) with 3,684 yards, 45 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Rivals ranks Mertz as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class. 247Sports slates him No. 7. Both rate him as a four-star recruit.

Four-star quarterback Cade McNamara was previously committed to Notre Dame from July to March. The 2019 recruit has since given his pledge to Michigan.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn watches as players warm at recent spring practice inside the Loftus Center.

KICKOFF: Saturday at 12:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC Sports Network

RADIO: WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)