Offensive line prowess becoming routine again at Notre Dame — along with Hamilton picks

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The oddest wrinkle in Brian Kelly’s strangely abbreviated post-practice press conference Saturday was that he never brought up freshman safety Kyle Hamilton’s two interceptions.

Nor, peculiarly, was the Notre Dame head football coach asked about them.

Maybe because it’s become — well — expected. That’s seven picks in the four complete practices that have been open to the media during training camp. Saturday’s practice at Notre Dame Stadium was also open to season-ticket holders as well as ND faculty and staff.

Quite honestly, Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent on Sept. 2, Louisville, could have planted moles in the crowd of several hundred and not gleaned much more than they could have picked up reading online in the days leading up to Saturday’s quasi-open session. Save perhaps a suddenly strong and confident junior Jonathan Doerer booming field goals with accuracy and distance.

Also becoming routine, like Hamilton, two weeks into training camp are the still-unpredictable linebacker personnel rotations, wide receiver Chase Claypool dominating whoever is assigned to defend him — including ND’s best cornerback, Troy Pride Jr. — quarterback Ian Book’s mustache, and a burgeoning Irish offensive line.

The latter is particularly impressive when you consider who’s crashing in from the edges — seniors Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, and the waves of competent backups that D-line coach Mike Elston isn’t afraid to deploy.

“Julian, since my freshman year, has progressed a tremendous amount,” senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg offered Saturday when asked about how improved the top of the defensive end depth chart seems.

“Throughout the winter, he put on weight. He’s come out stronger. He’s more powerful, but he’s still quick. He’s still that fast guy.

“They’re both (Okwara and Kareem) really quick off the ball. The defensive line does a really good job with working their hands. That’s where they’ve definitely improved, working their hands — both of them.”

That offensive line coach Jeff Quinn’s voice hasn’t become Brian Polian-level raspy and that Kelly smiled big when the topic of the offensive line came up in the mini-Q&A Saturday are indications Eichenberg and his linemates have improved significantly as well.

Perhaps the biggest faux pas committed among them Saturday was when right tackle and captain Robert Hainsey went to celebrate with running back C’Bo Flemister for some reason during stretching drills and somehow managed to head-butt him.

“That group of five is a really good unit that plays well together,” Kelly said of the starting group that also includes guards Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks along with center prodigy Jarrett Patterson, a redshirt freshman and first-time starter.

Excellence and cohesion weren’t givens, at least perceptually, when perhaps the best offensive line coach in all of college football, Harry Hiestand, left Notre Dame after its renaissance 2017 season to work in the NFL again.

Hiestand’s last group, which included first-round draft picks Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, won the prestigious Joe Moore Award in his sixth and final season in South Bend. It’s an honor bestowed upon the nation’s best offensive line and named after Hiestand’s mentor.

Quinn had a long track record of success in his own right, including with Kelly at other coaching stops for a long stretch, but not at Notre Dame. Upon succeeding Hiestand, Quinn didn’t lead with his ego and insist on fixing what wasn’t broken.

Instead, he smartly built on Hiestand’s strong culture and philosophies, but brought his own effervescent personality into the mix. This season will be a fairer litmus test than last as to where this all might be headed, but it’s certainly been magic on the recruiting trail.

Among the players already on campus, the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Eichenberg has thrived in the new regime —though not right away.

His first collegiate start, in last year’s season-opening win against Michigan, pitted him against two of 2018’s top defensive ends nationally, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.

“I always hate watching that game, ’cause I had no experience,” Eichenberg said. “I kind of went out there, and just looking back throughout the clips, I’m like, ‘What the heck was I doing?’ “

By the time he faced elite Florida State end Brian Burns in the home finale and Clemson All-American Clelin Ferrell in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 29, Eichenberg could resoundingly answer that question.

Not that it suggests perfection, but certainly progress. It’s been a persistent evolvement, though not always linear, ever since.

“What I liked about Liam more than anything else in this camp is that he’s been steady and he’s been consistent,” Kelly said. “At times in the spring there were some ups and downs that were noticeable.

“Very rarely has it been noticeable those days that haven’t been his best. I know that doesn’t sound like a glowing report, but … that’s a really good thing for a left tackle.”

Also good for a left tackle is when the player next to you, junior Banks, develops in quantum leaps.

“I just think everything has slowed down for him,” Eichenberg said of the 6-6, 325-pound junior in his first full season as a starter after plugging a hole in 2018’s second half. “And that kind of comes with games you’ve played.

“It’s completely different when you’re out here in practice, and you’re going against the same guys. You’re seeing the same stuff, but in the moment in a game you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

“We know our defense and know certain blitzes they run, the pressures, how guys move. The difference now with Banks, there’s more of a trust factor there. I trust him. He’ll see what he needs to see and he’ll communicate.

“I think he’s going to have a monster year and you see him out there. He’s massive. But at the same time, he’s crazy athletic, which is rare to see at his size.”

The four draft-eligible Irish offensive linemen — all of whom have eligibility in 2020 — are all on NFL scouts’ radars, which is more of an incentive to keep working, keep building than it is a potential distraction, Eichenberg said.

“My grandpa loves looking at the internet, and he loves telling me about what he’s reading about me,” Eichenberg said. “I’m like, ‘Grandpa, it doesn’t matter.’ Nothing against them, but most of those guys that are writing, they honestly don’t know. They’re just kind of assuming things.

“I’m focused on beating Louisville and am just excited for this year. I have the mindset to finish. I want to put (the defender) in the ground.”

Irish offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg (74) throws a block during a semi-open practice Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.