Sam Mustipher at center of answers for Notre Dame's offensive line

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

A time will come when Sam Mustipher doesn’t have to answer questions about the absence of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.

It’s the easiest starting point to tell the story of Notre Dame’s 2018 offensive line. Gone are two top 10 NFL Draft picks in Nelson (Colts) and McGlinchey (49ers). How the new version of Notre Dame‘s offensive line will fare without them and former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is one of the more intriguing story lines heading into the season.

So naturally, as reporters gathered around Mustipher following last Friday’s opening practice of preseason camp at Culver Academies, Mustipher was asked about not having Nelson and McGlinchey on the line. It’s a question Mustipher has received countless times since spring practice started in March.

That has to be tiring, right?

“I don’t mind,” Mustipher said. “You guys ask some questions where I’m just like, ‘What?’ But it’s fine. I’ll answer anything.”

Spoken like a captain heading into his third season as the starting center. Mustipher, a graduate student after earning his computer science degree in May, has taken the field on the first play for Notre Dame’s offense in the last 25 games. Not much fazes him.

For the record, this is how the 6-foot-3, 306-pound center handled the latest version of the Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey question. He was asked what the difference will be without them.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a difference,” Mustipher said. “We’re going to maintain the same standard of excellence. They’re obviously great players in their own right. I respect the heck out of them. I see what they’re doing in the NFL, and it doesn’t shock me whatsoever.

“But the guys here want to be great. When you have guys who are putting forth the effort and that are hungry to do the things that they’re capable of doing, it’s going to be fun.”

As much as Mustipher and the rest of his fellow linemen believe in their ability to uphold the standard set last year with a Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top offensive line, the questioning will continue to come until games start being played. Only then will the Irish be able to prove that its offensive line can continue to dominate.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “(Offensive line) coach (Jeff) Quinn’s done a great job of developing that unit to the level where there’s great leadership, there are guys that know what they need to do. You pass the torch.”

For Mustipher’s part, he’s already established himself as a reliable cog in Notre Dame’s offensive line. He knows what it takes to clear the way for a school record 3,503 rushing yards and 6.3 rushing yards per carry in 2017. He also knows what mishandled snaps and 4-8 looks like.

The newest priority for Mustipher is leadership. When the Olney (Md.) Good Counsel product was named a captain in March, he was recognized by his teammates as someone capable of filling the role. But he hasn’t changed how he approaches his teammates.

“I just kind of do what I’ve been doing to get here and earn the respect of my peers,” Mustipher said. “I keep coming out and be the same person every day, because that’s what makes great leaders. As soon as you change and try to be someone you weren’t or do something you haven’t done before, that’s when you get in your own head. Your game declines because of it.”

Mustipher doesn’t have to lead the offensive line on his own. Left guard Alex Bars, also a graduate student, was named a captain in April. Just like last season with Nelson and McGlinchey, two of Notre Dame’s captains reside on the offensive line. With junior Tommy Kraemer at right guard and sophomore Robert Hainsey at right tackle, the Irish have four offensive linemen returning with significant playing experience.

That’s why Mustipher has faith in the offensive line. He also sees a confident Liam Eichenberg ready to take over at left tackle. Just don’t expect that confidence to slow down any of Mustipher’s development.

Mustipher wants to improve in all aspects of the game. He specifically identified second-level blocks on linebackers and gap blocks on defensive tackles as points of emphasis for himself.

“There’s nothing I’ve perfected yet,” Mustipher said. “That’s something that I’ve learned from when Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley were here to Q and Mike just leaving. There was never a day that they weren’t looking to perfect something. Once you get it perfect, most guys stop playing.”

Mustipher has 12 or 13 or 14 games left in his Notre Dame career to chase perfection. How those games play out will likely have a lot to do with the quarterback he’s snapping the ball to at the start of every play. A relationship with quarterback Brandon Wimbush has grown in the last year.

Besides playing with Wimbush on the field, Mustipher teamed with him on the Notre Dame Founder’s Fund. Alongside women’s basketball players Brianna Turner and Kathryn Westbeld, they learned about investing in venture capital through the club. Mustipher and Wimbush also have lockers close to each other.

But when it comes to football feedback, Mustipher keeps it positive with his quarterback.

“I don’t say anything negative to him ever even if he does mess up,” Mustipher said, “because I know he’s got about four different people and 12 million Monday morning quarterbacks in his ear.”

Mustipher said he sees a more mature, more confident quarterback with Wimbush preparing for his senior season. As for Wimbush, he’s not looking at the offensive line worried about who’s no longer in front of him.

“I can’t speak more highly of those guys up front,” Wimbush said. “They’re still the last guys off the field every day at practice. Nothing’s changed. Nothing in the mentality has changed for those guys. The guys that are stepping in now are going to take right over and fill the position.”

That confidence is appreciated by Mustipher.

“It means everything,” Mustipher said. “If the guy behind you is confident, he’s more confident in himself. I hope he says good things about us.”

As for everyone else, they can keep asking questions. Mustipher will continue to answer them in front of cameras and microphones until he can answer them again on the field.{/div}

Center Sam Mustipher has started the last 34 games for Notre Dame.