Notre Dame OT Liam Eichenberg ready to leave legacy in final season with Irish
Liam Eichenberg bought a squat rack.
When Notre Dame’s starting left tackle learned the coronavirus pandemic would keep him at home in the Cleveland area for an indefinite amount of time, an investment in workout equipment felt necessary.
With the help of his younger brother, Tommy, a linebacker at Ohio State, the Eichenberg family garage quickly transformed into a weight room. Tommy’s friends dropped off some weights they were no longer using, and the brothers went to work.
“It was cool, because that was the most time that we’ve been together in a couple years,” said Tommy, who is entering his redshirt freshman season at Ohio State. “We were just working out every day, pushing each other.”
The three-year difference between the brothers meant they were last in school together when Liam was a senior at St. Ignatius High School and Tommy was a freshman.
They’ve both come a long way since then. But the admiration from younger brother to older brother hasn’t changed.
“He’s the reason why I play football,” Tommy said. “I used to watch him. When he was in high school, I used to go to every single one of his games. He’s like my role model. I wanted to be like him when I was growing up.”
The strong feelings are mutual. Liam lights up when asked about his younger brother. Watching Tommy land at Ohio State last year was a rewarding experience for Liam.
“Being a bigger brother and seeing your brother do well, it’s kind of like as if I had a son,” Liam said. “It feels very similar. It’s probably how my dad feels about me and my brother. I’m very proud of him. I want him to be the best he can on and off the field.”
So together they pushed forward this spring at different stages of their football careers. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Liam started all 26 games the past two seasons at Notre Dame. The graduate student is one of five returning starters on an Irish offensive line group with realistic goals of being the best in the country.
The 6-2, 238-pound Tommy is surrounded by plenty of talent at Ohio State. All three projected starting linebackers — Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning — were named to the 51-player preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s top linebacker.
Tommy — who played in four games last season, mostly on special teams — is fighting to make a bigger impact and find a role with the Buckeyes. Liam didn’t start until his junior year at Notre Dame, so he can offer advice about waiting your turn.
The brothers didn’t stay workout partners for long. Liam returned to South Bend after about a month, weeks before most of the rest of the Irish could do so in mid-June. He had work to do with his offensive line brotherhood at Notre Dame. Liam and fellow offensive linemen Tommy Kraemer, Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks were able to return to their off-campus housing in South Bend to do workouts and drills together before the pandemic bubble was later created at the Morris Inn.
Liam joked that his departure from Cleveland made it easier on his parents, too. They no longer had to cook for a college offensive lineman. They only had to take care of Tommy, who had a free squat rack at his disposal. Liam footed the bill.
“I would have helped him out,” Tommy said, ”but he didn’t even ask.”
The two have stayed connected since returning to their respective campuses.
“He calls me just about every single week,” Tommy said. “He asks me how things are going. How workouts and lifts are going. He always tells me to keep my head in the playbook. He’s one of the most supportive people in my life.”
Growing pains, gains
Liam Eichenberg wanted to be a basketball player. His father played basketball at John Carroll University and his grandfather was a basketball player, too.
But for all the time and effort he put into playing basketball growing up, the rewards of football came faster. Liam played football as a 195-pound freshman at St. Ignatius. In the offseason, older teammate Jimmy Byrne, who went on to play at Notre Dame as well, told Eichenberg he could become a starter if he added weight. Sixty pounds later, Eichenberg became the starting left tackle as a sophomore.
“I put on a lot of weight. The rest is history,” Eichenberg said. “I learned to love football. It was a big change.”
Eichenberg didn’t think football was something he could pursue in college and beyond, but he quickly learned differently. Before his sophomore season even started, Eichenberg received his first scholarship offer. It came from Ohio State.
“I fell in love with football because I enjoyed it,” Eichenberg said. “I took it serious, but there wasn’t the pressure that there was on basketball. In football, I’m a more physical guy. Even in basketball, I’d get like five fouls every game. It was kind of an issue.
“When I went to Ignatius, it was a big football school. It just felt right. From then on, I fell in love with the game. I’ve enjoyed it ever since.”
St. Ignatius head coach Chuck Kyle, who has won 358 games and 11 state championships over 37 seasons with the Wildcats, isn’t always as sold on his players when college coaches want to start recruiting them as freshmen and sophomores. There wasn’t that same kind of skepticism with Eichenberg.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and sometimes it’s hard for me to say, ‘Hey, this freshman is going to be that great.’” Kyle said. “It depends on how he grows and how he approaches things. The kid doesn’t even drive yet. What do you mean? How’s he going to handle that whole thing?
“But it was pretty clear by (Eichenberg’s) sophomore year by how he was growing and watching his work ethic in the weight room and athletically watching him move that he was major Division I. He was starting to get offers his sophomore year, so it was pretty clear that was going to happen for him.”
The rest of Eichenberg’s career at St. Ignatius wasn’t always a breeze. In August of his junior season, Eichenberg tore the meniscus in his left knee. He played through the season on the injury and waited to have surgery until January. Then, as a senior, Eichenberg was sidelined for a few games by mononucleosis.
Keeping Eichenberg off the field or out of the weight room wasn’t easy. He was always ready to fight through the pain.
“He wasn’t rude,” Kyle said. “It’s just, ‘Hey, you have to be patient. Things happen.’ He’s this big kid, but he’s only 16 or 17 years old. You have to be cautious. You have to be careful. You have to be patient.”
Those lessons in patience came in handy early in Eichenberg’s Notre Dame career. He didn’t expect to play as a true freshman, but he hoped to break in as the starting right tackle in his redshirt freshman season. Even as a recruit, Eichenberg asked a reporter to project the depth chart for 2017 to see if it was a reasonable goal.
The opportunity at right tackle was there for Eichenberg as a redshirt freshman in 2017, but he didn’t win the job. Instead, fellow redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer and true freshman Robert Hainsey took over the role in a rotation for then-offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Eichenberg was stuck behind Mike McGlinchey at left tackle.
The decision hit Eichenberg hard. For the first time in his football career, Eichenberg started to feel pressure during that competition for the right tackle spot. If he couldn’t crack the lineup then, when would it be his turn?
But Eichenberg eventually realized the opportunity he still had in front of him. McGlinchey was a fifth-year player, and Eichenberg still had three potential years as the starting left tackle ahead of him.
“It doesn’t matter who is in the room. It matters how you play and how you progress,” Eichenberg said. “It sucked. Being straight up, it sucked not playing as a redshirt freshman. But at the same time, I wasn’t ready. Guys are ready at different points in their careers.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t change it. It made me that much better right now. It gave me an opportunity to really improve on my technique and be behind Mike. I could sit back and watch how he took care of things and how he did things. It gave me an opportunity to understand the game more. It took a little pressure off of it.”
The last three starting left tackles to leave Notre Dame were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Zack Martin, a four-year starter at Notre Dame, started the trend when the Dallas Cowboys selected him with the 16th pick in the 2014 draft. Then Ronnie Stanley, a three-year starter, raised the bar when the Baltimore Ravens took him with the sixth pick in the 2016 draft. Mike McGlinchey, who also started three seasons, became the latest Irish left tackle selection in 2018, when the San Francisco 49ers picked him ninth.
Trying to follow the trio could come with a lot of pressure. If Eichenberg feels any of it after starting two seasons at left tackle, he’s not willing to admit it.
“You have to take care of your business,” Eichenberg said. “Every single position, if you don’t do your job, you may not have it. I really don’t think about the guys who came before me. I think about what I need to do to uphold the standard.”
The standard is clear. Both Martin (an NFL guard) and Stanley were named to the NFL All-Pro team last season alongside fellow Notre Dame product Quenton Nelson. Notre Dame became an NFL factory on the offensive line under Hiestand, who left the Irish after the 2017 season. Eichenberg wants to keep that pipeline going under current offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.
“It is an honor stepping into that left tackle role,” Eichenberg said. “Every position on the offensive line is an honor. A lot of guys have sacrificed a lot for this program. It’s crazy.
“I could text or call Zack, and he’d answer. I could call Ronnie, and he’d answer. I wasn’t here with those guys, but because of what they built in the offensive line room has lasted up until now and will last into the future, it’s definitely special. It’s definitely an honor to play left tackle here.”
Regardless of what came before him, Eichenberg would want to become a first-round draft pick. He believes that every college football player should have that goal. It still remains a possibility for Eichenberg, but he’ll likely need an impressive final season to vault him into the first round.
In July, Pro Football Focus ranked Eichenberg as the No. 5 offensive tackle and No. 44 prospect overall in the 2021 draft class. PFF draft analyst Mike Renner described Eichenberg as “an extremely solid, if unspectacular, tackle prospect.”
“He saw his performance take a massive leap from his first to his second season as a starter,” Renner wrote. “His pass-blocking grade went from 63.5 in 2018 to 85.6 last year, and his run-blocking grade from 60.8 to 78.8.”
Eichenberg’s penchant for protecting quarterback Ian Book has driven his value for Notre Dame. Last season, Eichenberg allowed Book to be pressured only 15 times on Book’s 463 dropbacks. None of those losses in pass protection resulted in Eichenberg’s defender sacking Book.
Eichenberg had his share of mishaps too, particularly with false start penalties. He led the Irish with eight false starts. He left too many defenders unblocked because of mix-ups with his fellow linemen. He made mistakes in technique that put him at a disadvantage.
“Obviously the game moves fast, but I shouldn’t have any mistakes,” Eichenberg said. “I cleaned it up a lot last year, but there’s always room to improve.”
In pursuit of perfection, Eichenberg watches film daily for at least an hour to identify his mistakes and to form a plan to prevent them from repeating. He also watches film of the best offensive linemen in the NFL to learn how they execute their assignments.
That’s the company Eichenberg wants to keep soon. But he has more important goals in my mind before trying to become a first-round pick.
“Everybody on our offensive line, their No. 1 goal is to win the Joe Moore Award,” Eichenberg said of college football’s unit award for elite O-line play. “If we win the Joe Moore Award, that means I’m doing something right and the guys in our room are doing something right. So that will put us in a good position at the next level.
“I hope everybody that plays college football has that goal (of being a first-round pick). But at the same time, I’m more of a team-oriented guy. I’d rather have my team goals met first: win a national championship, win the Joe Moore Award. Then my personal accolades and success will follow.”
The road ahead
It didn’t take long for the Joe Moore Award to become the obsession of Notre Dame’s offensive line.
The award was created in 2015 to recognize the most outstanding offensive line unit in college football. Former Notre Dame offensive lineman Aaron Taylor helped establish the award with the namesake of his former offensive line coach at Notre Dame. Moore finished his coaching career with the Irish from 1988-96 after stints at Pittsburgh and Temple.
A massive traveling trophy weighing more than 350 pounds was created to be loaned to the winner each year. The trophy spent a year in South Bend after Notre Dame won it following the 2017 season behind a starting offensive line of McGlinchey, Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Kraemer.
Kraemer is the last remaining starter from that group still at Notre Dame. Hainsey also rotated at right tackle that year, the same year in which Eichenberg failed to break into the lineup as a redshirt freshman.
Winning the Joe Moore Award again has remained an annual goal, but the Irish have fallen further from the finish line in the two seasons since 2017. In 2018, Notre Dame was included in the 10-team semifinalist list but fell short of the three finalists. Last season, the Irish didn’t even make the semifinalist cut.
Eichenberg didn’t take the snub as disrespectful. Rather it was another indication of how much better Notre Dame’s offensive line needs to be, despite being one of the best pass-blocking units in the country by multiple measures.
Pro Football Focus graded the Irish as the second-best pass-blocking unit in college football last season. The Irish also finished ranked 12th in the FBS in sacks allowed, with only 1.23 per game.
“Obviously there’s a lot that we could fix,” Eichenberg said. “Definitely from a run standpoint, we need to be more dominant in the run game. That will show up this coming season.
“Along with that, being efficient on first and second down. Also converting on third. We need to convert on third when we run the ball.
“Pass pro, we did well. Just technique issues. Not letting Book get hit and giving up sacks and giving up pressures.
“The biggest focus for this offensive line for this coming season is definitely in the run game.”
Eichenberg doesn’t need the numbers explained to him. He knows Notre Dame rushing average of 179.2 yards per game ranked No. 45 in the country. He knows the Irish couldn’t muster much on the ground at all — 45 carries for 93 yards collectively — in their losses at Georgia and Michigan.
Eichenberg also knows what it’s going to take to improve on those numbers. He’s well aware that three of the four Joe Moore Award finalists last season (LSU, Alabama and Ohio State) finished the season ranked among the top four in third-down conversion percentage. The worst of that trio was LSU, which won the award before finishing its national championship run, at 49.7 percent.
The Irish finished ranked 65th with a third-down conversion rate of 40.2 percent.
“If you want to win games, you have to convert on third down,” Eichenberg said. “They showed us the numbers for LSU and Ohio State.”
Being unable to rely on its running game limited Notre Dame’s potency on third down.
“You always feel like you’re good at both (run blocking and pass blocking), but the numbers don’t lie,” he said. “At the same time, we didn’t run the ball as efficiently in big-time games too. That tells you the most. Against Georgia and Michigan, if you don’t run the ball, then obviously you’re not doing it right.”
Fixing those issues as a line starts with improved communication, Eichenberg said. Not being on the same page shouldn’t be an excuse for an offensive line returning 59 of the 65 starts from last season.
“We took a step back, and we’re starting from the beginning,” Eichenberg said. “We’re going to identify everything on every down. As the season goes on, you kind of forget to do that. For Banks and me, we’ve been playing for a while, so it’s like, ‘All right. We know what we’re doing.’
“But at the same time, you still should be communicating. We still need to call out who we’re going to (block) just in case somebody’s not on the same page.”
Then if the group’s strength and quickness are in a good place, all that’s left to master is the technique. That’s why Eichenberg, Kraemer, Hainsey and Banks spent so much time together before the team officially returned to campus in June. They’ve continued to help each other get better.
They can’t meet their goals without each other. The Joe Moore Award depicts five offensive lineman on the top of its trophy for a reason.
“It’s nice returning the whole line. That was one of the reasons Tommy and I wanted to come back, because we were bringing back the whole O-line,” Eichenberg said. “We want to win the Joe Moore Award. Last year wasn’t our year, but this year could be our year.”
The Joe Moore Award, named after former Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Moore, has been given to the most outstanding offensive line unit in college football each season since 2015. The Irish hope to become the first team to win the award twice.
|2015||Alabama||Finalist (1 of 6)|
|2018||Oklahoma||Semifinalist (1 of 10)|