Improving Robert Hainsey brings stability to right side of Notre Dame's offensive line

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Robert Hainsey knew about the talent level on Florida State’s defensive line.

Notre Dame’s right tackle played against defensive end Brian Burns during his junior year of high school. He was teammates with defensive end Joshua Kaindoh at Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy. He even crossed paths with defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, a five-star prospect, on the recruiting scene.

That made Notre Dame’s offensive line performance — clearing the way for 365 rushing yards and allowing no sacks or tackles for a loss — that much more meaningful. Even if it wasn’t a surprise in Hainsey’s mind.

“We knew what they were going to do,” said Hainsey, a sophomore who has played in all 23 games since arriving at Notre Dame. “We knew they were going to move on us, blitz a ton. We knew that if we kept pounding them, we’d get them to open up and get those runs like Dexter’s long run. We know if you keep going after it, we’d break them.”

On the 58-yard touchdown run by Williams, he was barely touched. The same happened on Williams’ 32-yard touchdown run. Of Notre Dame’s 365 rushing yards, roughly 203 of them came before significant contact.

Before playing against Notre Dame, Florida State had allowed opposing offenses to rush for an average of 111.1 yards per game.

“We love running the ball, obviously,” Hainsey said. “To put numbers up like that on a team that had only been giving up 100 yards a game was pretty awesome for us. We knew we could do it. We always know we can do it. We had a great scheme for them. We just executed to the best of our ability.”

Identifying how well Notre Dame’s offensive line can perform has been a challenge this season. Following the loss of left guard Alex Bars to a season-ending knee injury, the Irish have been shuffling in different lineups. Four different players have started at guard. Center Sam Mustipher, left tackle Liam Eichenberg and Hainsey have been the constants.

Even before Bars went down, the offensive line had shaky performances to start the season against Michigan and Ball State. At that point, Hainsey was still recovering from a leg injury in camp. It forced him to miss multiple practices when he needed to be tuning up to start the season.

“It was tough not being able to practice a ton in those last few practices of camp,” Hainsey said. “So that was hard. It kind of gets you out of shape a little bit as much as you’re working out. It’s just tough. You can’t get the reps and everything.”

Hainsey said his leg didn’t affect him when it came to the games, but his worst performances in pass protection came in the first two games of the season. He allowed more pressures (13) against Michigan and Ball State than any other Irish lineman. He hasn’t allowed that many pressures in the last eight games combined.

When Hainsey was struggling to start the season, he appeared to have trouble moving well. He pointed to the Stanford game as the point in the season where things started clicking for him. Hainsey took a step back in his performance against Pittsburgh, but he said he’s been pleased with how he’s played in the last three games.

“Recently, I’ve been playing much better than I had been earlier in the season,” Hainsey said. “That’s really what it’s all about. I’d like to start fast and stay there, but the first few games you’re getting in the swing of things. You just have to figure out your issues and fix them.”

The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Hainsey isn’t the most physically gifted lineman at Notre Dame, but he succeeds with technique. He was trained well in high school, and that allowed him to work in rotation with Tommy Kraemer at right tackle last season as a true freshman.

“He’s just a strong-willed, never-back-down kind of young man,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Hainsey last month. “Nothing was going to get in his way of being successful. Just a strong, strong-willed individual. Coupled with great retention of football knowledge.

“I don’t know how he retains other knowledge, but football knowledge, outstanding. Like you give him information, he retains it. Then he translates that into really, really good technique. He’s a really good technician.”

Hainsey prefers to describe himself as smooth.

“When I’m at my best, I’m moving my best. I’m feeling smooth,” Hainsey said. “I have my targets. I’m setting back to my target. It’s tough to explain. I can see it. I feel smooth. I feel like I’m low. I’m getting in and hitting hard and not getting stood up or anything.”

Hainsey will have another tough task against Syracuse. He’ll likely be matched up against defensive end Alton Robinson for most of the game. The 6-4, 249-pound Robinson has nine sacks and 15 tackles for a loss this season.

“He’s a great player,” Hainsey said. “Strong, fast.”

Hainsey will have help whether it’s Kraemer or Trevor Ruhland beside him at right guard. Kraemer, a former five-star recruit, lost his starting spot earlier this season and has rotated with Ruhland at times. With Ruhland dealing with an elbow injury, Kraemer saw all the action at right guard against Florida State before the backups came in at the end of the blowout.

Hainsey has tried to help Kraemer through his ups and downs this season.

“We’re always coaching each other, working together and telling each other what you did on that play that you need to do better. That kind of stuff,” Hainsey said. “We’re always there for each other. No one’s ever down on one another. It’s always a great friendship.”

Those are the kind of relationships that have allowed this offensive line to make it through its many variations. Hainsey believes the line is the closest position group on the team. Every Thursday night, the linemen get together at someone’s house, bring their own pizzas and watch football.

Little Caesars is a popular choice for its price point, but Hainsey said his personal favorite — for the price and quality — is Jet’s Pizza.

The pizza likely isn’t part of the recommended diet, but Hainsey said he’s feeling good for November when health and a season of bumps and bruises can be an issue.

The production needs to remain at a high level to compete in the College Football Playoff.

“Whoever’s in there, it’s all the same no matter what,” Hainsey said. “That’s big for us. You don’t have to worry about anyone. You worry about yourself and trust the man next to you is going to do his job.”

An improving Robert Hainsey (No. 72) at right tackle has allowed Notre Dame’s offensive line to block better for guys like running back Dexter Williams (left). AP Photo/Steve Helber
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) looks to throw as teammate Robert Hainsey (72) holds off Virginia Tech's Houshun Gaines (11) during the 45-23 Irish victory.