A look inside the mind and heart of Kurt Hinish and Notre Dame's D-line evolution
“We stopped checking for monsters underneath our bed when we realized they’re inside of us”
SOUTH BEND — The prospect of throwing up doesn’t disturb Kurt Hinish in the least.
In fact, the Notre Dame sophomore defensive lineman considers a little nausea, without actually going over the edge with it, validation that he got his money’s worth in terms of sheer volume at a local steakhouse’s Thursday night $10 jumbo burger special.
The real allure of the evening, though, is the bonding.
Every Thursday. Every Irish defensive lineman on the roster. Every week, the first to arrive orders appetizers for everyone.
And that is where Notre Dame’s evolution from a flailing 4-8 team two seasons ago to one that chases regular-season perfection Saturday night at USC (5-6) took root.
In a broken scheme, in a position group that was getting pushed around aesthetically and getting its teeth kicked in statistically, two seasons ago. When the gap between where the arch-rival Trojans hovered and the Irish were headed seemed hopelessly untraversable for the team now with real playoff aspirations.
“Yeah, there’s pressure,” Hinish said of being on the cusp of the program’s first-ever playoff berth. “But like coach (Brian) Kelly said, ‘pressure is a privilege.’ We’re blessed to be in the position we’re in.”
How the script flipped so emphatically has so many key figures and moments that are as plentiful as they are obvious.
A short sampling: The striking maturation of defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. The burgeoning mean streak of Julian Okwara. The recruitment of the Ademilola twins. The return of Mike Elston to coaching the defensive line. Mike Elston’s wife, Beth, and her cookies that are rewards/incentives for sacks.
Yet they’re important — but disjointed — pieces without chemistry, or in Notre Dame’s case, alchemy.
How that looks numerically for the third-ranked Irish (11-0) heading into their regular-season finale is a total defense that currently ranks 20th, up from 103rd on the day defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder got fired, in late September of 2016.
Sacks are up from a tie for dead last (126th) to 30th. And the improved pass rush has helped the pass-efficiency defense ranking spike from 111th to 2nd. Rush defense is up significantly too, from 96th to 39th.
How Hinish fits into that formula is more intangible than tangible at this juncture, but nonetheless powerful. Good teams don’t morph into ones with a chance to be great without players like him.
“I don’t know what the right phrase is, flown under the radar?” Kelly offered. “He’s playing his best football.”
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Pittsburgh product is coming off his best statistical showing to date — three tackles, including the first sack of his career in last Saturday’s 36-3 throttling of Syracuse and combining on a second sack with linebacker Te’von Coney.
Collectively Hinish, freshman Jayson Ademilola, senior Micah Dew-Treadway, junior Jamir Jones and junior Ade Ogundeji play at a high enough level that the Irish coaches rotate them in liberally throughout the games.
The upshot is that Okwara, Daelin Hayes, Tillery, Khalid Kareem and Jonathan Bonner are fresh and impactful in the fourth quarter.
But the dynamic goes much deeper.
Each of them has a story that fueled a turning point individually. Each of them brings inspiration to the equation.
Hinish’s is his family. And viewing the defensive line evolution through his/their lens is both telling and compelling.
“The dad, as you know, blue collar construction worker, has fought through cancer I think a third time,” Kelly said of Kurt Hinish Sr., who was finally cancer free last spring when he attended the Blue-Gold Game, five years after undergoing surgery for stage 4 colon cancer.
Kurt Sr. and his wife, Tawnie, were also at Yankee Stadium last Saturday to witness the Irish defensive line catalyze six sacks and a season-best 3.21 yards-per-play allowed against what had been the nation’s sixth-best scoring offense.
“I think just that blue collar Pittsburgh profile that we all kind of have in our mind really is the Hinish family,” Kelly continued. “They’re close-knit Catholics. The dad had gone through a tough battle with cancer, and the kids and the family are so close that they live it every single day.
“So for them, and Kurt, he’s playing with the house’s money in a sense where he gets a chance to play football at Notre Dame, and that’s why he has such a great attitude.”
“He gets up and goes to work every single day, like everybody else,” the younger Hinish added. “He’s my role model. He’s the reason why I do all this.”
It’s not just on-the-field stuff, either. In the days leading up to the Irish playing in the Citrus Bowl against LSU last Jan. 1, each ND player was given a $500 Best Buy gift card to spend how ever they wanted, as a perk from the Citrus Bowl folks.
When Hinish went home for Christmas for four days just ahead of ND’s trip to Orlando, Fla., he noticed the family’s dishwasher was broken, and all his family members were washing dishes by hand.
So he decided to spend his bowl gift on a new dishwasher for the family.
“We’re not the richest family in the world,” he said a few months later. “But when I called my dad to get the measurements for the dishwasher, I think he knew what I was up to and he wouldn’t give them to me. So I wasn’t able to get them one.
“I ended up buying him a drone instead. So he has a lot of fun with that.”
His teammates take notice. And it becomes woven into the fabric of all of them.
Hinish does have his idiosyncrasies, though.
He likes to post quotes from others that he finds inspirational on his Instagram account for instance.
“Hungry Dogs run faster.”
“No time to inhale complacency in the pursuit of excellence.”
“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”
“The Devil whispered in my ear, ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ I whispered back in the Devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.’ ”
Hinish certainly looks like a storm, or something like close to it, as he preps himself before each game.
He and Kareem start with eye black, a substance that was manufactured to prevent glare. For Hinish and Kareem, spread over almost their entire faces, it creates a different function.
“The eye black is something that changes your personality, changes me into something,” Hinish said. “I like to think it changes me into a monster.
“Someone who I really like and admire, in just how lunatic and crazy he is, is the Joker (of Batman fame). He also wore face paint. A lot of Instagram posts, I was using the Joker pose and stuff. I think he’s funny. I think he’s out of his mind. I think he’s great.
“Obviously, I’m not a lunatic, but I like to carry that into a game. I’m foaming at the mouth . I’m ready to go. I’m shakin’. I love it.”
To Elston’s delight, Hinish loves hard work as much as exploring his eccentric side. Where that shows up in his game is last year as a freshman, he could hold the point of attack and take up space. Now he takes up space in the stat sheet, because he’s getting off blocks and making plays.
“Honestly, just hours and hours of work,” Hinish said. “A lot of time in the film room. We call it ‘crafting.’ We always, as defensive linemen, say ‘We’re crafting,’ no matter what, when, where we are. There’s always work to be done wherever we are.”
Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis purposefully pairs the defensive linemen whenever they show up for crafting in the weight room.
“You go through stuff together. You’re dying together,” Hinish said.
On his own last summer, Hinish and Jayson Ademilola, the two primary backups this season in the line’s interior, met Balis every Tuesday at 8 a.m., for extra work on their own time and of their own volition.
“I’ve never been around a group of guys that cares about each other so much,” Hinish said.
He flashes back to memories of his father again.
The younger Hinish started going to work with him in the summertime for the first time between fourth and fifth grade, he said. The summer of his junior year he drew his toughest work assignment.
Kurt Jr. processed it as the worst day in his life at the time, but now wouldn’t trade it for the world.
His dad, working on a project in the back yard, tasked Kurt Jr., to move seven tons of stone via a wheelbarrow.
“By myself,” he said. “I just kept chipping away.”
And now he’s chipping away at his dream, but not alone. Never alone.
“You only get one life to live. Spend that life doing things with the people you love and cherishing the time God gives you on this earth.”