Notre Dame left tackle Liam Eichenberg must transcend to ascend

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The only scouting report Jeff Quinn would provide regarding the fishing prowess of his starting left tackle, Liam Eichenberg, is that Quinn professes to be the superior fisherman.

That goes for any other member of the Notre Dame offensive line as well, per their perpetually exuberant mentor.

“They can come by any time they want. They knew where my house is,” puffed the 55-year-old Irish first-year O-Line coach, who sees himself as more of a co-conspirator with revered position coaching predecessor Harry Hiestand than someone tasked with living up to someone else’s standards.

If there’s a part of himself that he hopes rubs off on Eichenberg — Saturday night in his first start, against an NFL-looking-and-acting Michigan defensive line, and in seemingly the epicenter of the college football universe on opening weekend — it’s just that.

And when Quinn looks in the mirror, he’ll give himself the same advice.

“Don’t battle the other things, things that don’t matter,” said Quinn, who much like Eichenberg might have the most temptation to do so among those on the Irish sideline when No. 12 Notre Dame opens its season at home against the 14th-ranked Wolverines (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).

There are waves and layers of potential distractions. ESPN College Gameday being back on campus for the first time since 2012. Roughly 75 members of the last team to win a national title in football for Notre Dame, 30 seasons ago, are also converging on Notre Dame Stadium.

The last ND player to win a Heisman Trophy, Tim Brown, will join them. and then there’s the most overt attempt ever to get the Irish fans in the stands to be color coordinated via a green-out, if they can pull it off.

All of which make the moment bigger, but the stiffest challenge is about legacy.

As Quinn follows Hiestand, now back with the Chicago Bears, the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Eichenberg, steps into a left tackle lineage that features three first-round NFL Draft picks directly preceding him (Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey).

The last player to start at the position who wasn’t an eventual first-rounder was Paul Duncan, in the final game of the Charlie Weis coaching era — a 45-38 come-from-ahead loss at Stanford on Nov. 28, 2009.

Duncan, an assistant project manager for a construction management firm in Atlanta, for the record did spend six months on the Denver Broncos roster, mostly in the offseason of 2010 after going undrafted.

Martin started in the Kelly Era opener against Purdue in 2010, and Hiestand joined forces for the 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game, weeks after Ed Warinner — who makes his debut as Michigan’s offensive line coach Saturday night — parachuted out of the O-Line job with the Irish to join Urban Meyer’s first staff at Ohio State.

Since then, Notre Dame’s offensive line has been its dominant identity, and mostly a proud and brash one.

Which, in turn, amplifies the spotlight Saturday night on Eichenberg, a Westlake, Ohio product, who is the only one of the five starting ND linemen without starting experience, and the one with arguably the toughest assignment Saturday night.

If it’s not 6-5, 283-pound junior defensive end Rashan Gary, the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2019 NFL Draft per ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest big board, it’s 6-3, 255-pound fifth-year senior Chase Winovich.

Gary was widely regarded as the nation’s No. 1 college prospect at any position three recruiting cycles ago, and looks every bit the part these days. Winovich, a former linebacker and tight end at Michigan, credits ballet, boxing and jujitsu for helping him evolve into a top-flight defensive end.

That strategy worked to the tune of 79 tackles, 18 of them for losses including eight sacks in 2017 — all totals that exceeded even Gary’s.

Eichenberg and Gary aren’t strangers. They faced each other as high school juniors, when Eichenberg’s Cleveland St. Ignatius team took the long road trip to Paramus (N.J.) Catholic and lost in double overtime.

Most observers rated the individual matchup as a draw.

Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, looking for a redemptive start against last season’s No. 3 defense, also faced Gary in high school — twice. Both were in New Jersey state championship games.

In the latter, Wimbush had gone the entire 2014 season not only without getting sacked, but without taking a hit on a pass attempt. That is until Gary and Paramus pressured him often in the New Jersey non-public, group 4 state championship game at MetLife Stadium.

By game’s end they had collected six sacks, with Gary accounting for two. But Wimbush countered that with 167 passing yards and two touchdowns, and 158 rushing yards on 11 carries and another score in a dominating 34-18 Jersey City St. Peter’s Prep victory.

“We still talk,” Wimbush said earlier in preseason camp. “My mom (Heather) and his mom (Jennifer Shepherd) talk real often. I’ve known him since the seventh or eighth grade. He’s been a monster ever since.”

Those in the Notre Dame locker room have long believed Eichenberg could morph into the same on the other side of the ball.

“He brings a nastiness that I really like,” offered grad senior guard Alex Bars, who was moved from right guard to left guard in the offseason to help accelerate Eichenberg’s progress. “He brings it every day.

“He’s got a great pass set, great hands. I’ve just been telling him he’s a heck of a ball player. The kid can ball. He just needs the confidence we’re trying to provide him.”

Confidence, or emotional toughness as Quinn defines it, was the missing piece for Eichenberg in the preseason of 2017, when he faded in a battle to be the starting right tackle, with the Irish eventually going with a tag team of Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer instead.

“It sucked,” Eichenberg said of both his effort and the results.

“He’s got the physical, and he can certainly do it mentally,” Quinn said. “He just has to understand the stress and the pressure that you can’t focus on. Those are things that would get you in trouble.”

It’s a rite of passage Bars and grad senior center Sam Mustipher both had to go through themselves.

Bars’ first high-leverage moment came against a Clemson defensive line, teeming with star power, on the road in 2015, when Quenton Nelson went out with a high ankle sprain. For Mustipher, it was Texas on the road the following season in the 2016 opener.

“It’s not about treating it like a big game or something it’s not,” Mustipher said of his welcome-to-prime-time moment. “It’s about going to work the same way every single day, and then once game day comes, it’s applying all the things you’ve been working on.

“A lot of the guys I faced in the Texas game are playing in the NFL right now. I remember them and that cannon they had that went off when they scored a touchdown. I remember more about my losses than I do my wins.

“That was probably the best thing for me, to have my first start in that kind of atmosphere. It was loud, and you have to learn to manage your nerves, manage your emotions. Just play ball.”

For Quinn, who lives along the St. Joseph River, fishing is what makes managing nerves and emotions possible for him from a coaching standpoint. Perhaps those times when Eichenberg joined him will benefit the player as well.

“Mike (McGlinchey) always said before he left, ‘Hey look, you’re going to have the opportunity to be left tackle, and I believe in you.’

“‘If you do become left tackle, you’ve got to be a leader. You’ve got to be dominant.’ ”

And if it doesn’t all happen at once, and all perfectly, Kelly is OK with that.

“Liam’s a ferocious, physical player, but he’s going to be challenged over there,” the coach said. “There’s no question.

“He’s playing against one of the best players in the country. So he’s got to know that there’s going to be some times that he’s going to struggle. and that we have got his back.

“And that it’s our job to help him out at times and get a tight end over there, get a back over there. But keep fighting, keep battling, because we believe in you.”

Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg (74) moves by Kurt Hinish (41) during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Eichenberg will make his first college start Saturday night against Michigan.