Noie: No limits for Notre Dame interior lineman Kurt Hinish

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He stinks.

Not in a sense that he doesn’t deserve to be on the football field at Notre Dame, because when the season starts Labor Day night at Louisville, junior Kurt Hinish will hustle to the huddle as the starting nose tackle for the first time in his collegiate career. So he belongs.

No, Hinish stinks in the way that he just pushed himself through another late-training camp practice. Saturday’s session was a challenge inside Notre Dame Stadium, where the sun spanked the empty blue seats near the field and splashed across all the concrete and made it feel 10, 15 degrees warmer than the low-80s air temperature.

It didn’t take long for the blue T-shirt that Hinish wears under his pads to turn the darkest of blues with perspiration. He dropped some serious sweat running from drill to drill, banging heads with offensive linemen, pushing to get better. At one point, as he took a few reps off, Hinish grabbed two Gatorade bottles of water and squeezed both into his mouth. Some refreshment fell in, most waterfalled down the front of his white No. 41 jersey.

His hands, each sporting a white glove wrapped with a few yards of athletic tape, resembled oversized Tomahawk steaks. His legs, with cumbersome but needed knee braces, looked like extended tree trunks.

It was hot; the day was demanding, but he kept working, kept moving, kept pushing.

Afterward, as one player pegged to meet the media, Hinish first had to wait for coach Brian Kelly to finish his presser in the stadium interview room. Usually, he could shower and change into the standard interview attire (a Notre Dame/Under Armor golf shirt).

On this day, Hinish just had to wait. In his own sweat. But that wasn’t the only smell coming from the 6-foot-1 3/4, 295-pound guy. Hinish also carried the distinct odor of pickles. Spears. Chips. Polish. Zesty. Didn’t matter. He smelled like he’d been doing backstrokes in the brine, which athletes often utilize to combat dehydration and cramping.

Hinish needed it on that day, but then again, that’s nothing new. Hot or cold, summer or spring, it doesn’t matter. He’s all-out in every rep, every practice, every day. It’s the way he’s wired.

As for that post-practice smell? It was one of success. As in, another good day for Hinish.

“Just seeing a lot of the guys around me look tired, that lifts me up,” Hinish said while leaning against a side wall in the interview room. “I feed off that. It’s going to make me a better player if I excel and if I’m dying, I know you’re dying too.”

Determined, driven

The preseason portion of camp ended Monday. Most players often are happy to see it go and with it, the end of ones versus ones (starters against starters) for extended practice periods. Hinish wishes it lasted a few days longer.

“It’s a grind,” he said. “I love it. I love it. I love it.”

He loved collapsing into his bed every night completely exhausted from that day’s round of practice and recovery and weight training and film sessions and meetings. He loved waking early the following day still bone tired, but knowing that the guy he’d go against in practice was just as exhausted.

It gave him energy. Tired mentally and physically? Don’t complain. Just compete.

“I tell myself to feed off other people being tired,” he said. “I look across and the other guy’s tired and I’m not tired now because I know that I have a step on him.”

Hinish learned that lesson — and many more in football and in life — from his father, Kurt, Sr. A colon cancer survivor, it was the elder Hinish who instilled that relentless work ethic in his son. Taught him that no matter how tired he might feel, how much his muscles ached and cried for a break, he could keep going. Had to keep going. Push his body to limits he never knew. Get another rep on defense. Do another rep in the weight room.

Can’t go any further? Wanna bet?

“He’s proven that to me,” Hinish said. “He always used to tell me — you’ll pass out before you die. You work until you pass out and if you die, you won’t know that you died.”

Hinish hasn’t passed out, but has come close. On the football field and in the weight room. He reached points in both places where everything starts to “go a little fuzzy,” at which point he pulls back. Only a little.

“It kind of gets to the point where you’re so tired,” he said, “you can’t get any more tired but you just keep working.”

Hinish was a scout team guy his first year, but still appeared in 12 games. He spent last season as a backup to Jonathan Bonner. He made 13 tackles in 13 games. Now he’s a starter. Don’t ask him how it feels. How does it feel? Like the Yinzer from Central Catholic in Pittsburgh still has everything to prove.

He’s a starter, sure, but in the biggest of pictures, it means nothing.

“I don’t have any different outlook on the opportunity that’s been given to me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a one or a three (on the depth chart). I just constantly want to get better.”

A D-Line leader

Spring was weird for Hinish. His previous two seasons, he was the one waiting on instructions from the old guys, waiting to take reps only after they got their turn. Now he’s one of the veterans. He’s got to be the one talking, showing, leading. He did some in March, did a little more in June and July and even more in August.

He can’t wait around for someone else to set the standard. He’s got to help set it.

“You always have to step up and be a leader as an older guy,” he said. “There’s an expectation that you have to do well.”

On Wednesday, Hinish was the first interior tackle to test himself against the two-man sled. He hit it hard, bullied it back a few yards, then tossed it aside like a bag of trash.

“That’s a good drill,” defensive line coach Mike Elston deadpanned.

Translation? Great rep.

“He’s a smart kid. Physical. Instinctive,” Elston said. “It’s his third year into it. He knows it and he’s looking to have a really good season.”

Hinish hears what everyone’s saying about what will make this a successful season. When talk of the 2019 Irish defensive line arrives, it often starts and stops with two guys on the outside — captains Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Both are as devastating off the edge as anyone in the country.

But there’s more to it than the bookends on the ends. There’s defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. There’s Hinish. And watch out for freshman Jacob Lacey, who continues to impress with each passing practice. There’s 12 guys who might get a chance.

“We can be just as dominant as last year, the year before, it doesn’t matter,” Hinish said. “We’re going to be really good.”

That’s more for Hinish to go and prove in the coming weeks. Yes, he deserves to be a starter. Yes, the defensive line can be dominant. Not for the ways the ends can get to the quarterback, but how the unit as a whole can be disruptive in stopping the run. In flustering the quarterback. In wrecking the other team’s game plan.

No Jerry Tillery. No Bonner. No problem.

“That really doesn’t mean anything to me,” Hinish said. “We’re going to be all right inside. We’re going to be ready when the time comes.”

That time is coming. Quickly. Notre Dame entered the second phase of preseason — Louisville prep — earlier this week. Friday marks the final practice of the week. Once Sunday arrives, it’s basically game week, albeit with a different rhythm to it with the opener falling on a Monday. It’s close. It’s almost here. Hinish knows what awaits next month in Kentucky, then the next 11 games that follow.

“You’ve got to be ready,” he said. “It’s a jungle in there.”

Keep that pickle juice close.

Anytime junior nose tackle Kurt Hinish (41) thinks he can’t push himself any further, he does.