Notre Dame NG Kurt Hinish bringing Pittsburgh pride in return to Heinz Field

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

It’s hard to quantify how much playing in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field means to Kurt Hinish.

But the fact that the Notre Dame senior nose guard knows exactly how many times he’s played in the stadium should be a pretty good indicator of its importance.

“It means the world to me to go back home and play Pitt,” Hinish said. “I grew up watching Pitt. I’m excited to play at Heinz Field for the fourth time. We played there in high school, so I’ve played there before.

“I’m really excited to go home and play in front of my family and some friends. This game means everything to me.”

The product of Pittsburgh Central Catholic will have friends in the stands and on the opposing sideline. The Pitt roster includes six former Central Catholic players and others Hinish knows well. In particular, Hinish calls Pitt safeties Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford his good friends.

Earlier this year when players returned to their homes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Hinish went paintballing with Hamlin, Ford and other Pittsburgh-area football players including NFL star Aaron Donald.

Hamlin and Hinish were on the same team once again that day. That will change on Saturday when Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) hosts No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0) in Heinz Field (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC).

“It’s a friendly competition,” Hinish said, “but once we step on the field we mean business.”

The last time Notre Dame played at Heinz Field, Hinish took advantage of an opportunity to play in front of five Irish coaches who were there to scout and impress Hamlin, a four-star cornerback, and four-star linebacker David Adams. Head coach Brian Kelly was joined by assistant coaches Mike Elston, Keith Gilmore, Scott Booker and Todd Lyght the night before the Irish beat the Panthers 42-30 in 2015.

The staff took notice of Hinish, a three-star recruit at the time, and extended him a scholarship offer the following February. He verbally committed to Notre Dame a month after that and a day after Adams did the same.

Hinish and Adams became part of the 2017 class that had to endure Notre Dame’s disastrous 4-8 season before officially signing. The 21-man class included two other Pittsburgh-area products — offensive linemen Robert Hainsey and Josh Lugg — that weren’t deterred by the 2016 season.

“We just had a special group of guys that year,” Hinish said. “A lot of us came up on recruiting visits together. It would have sucked if we lost some of our guys.

“The guys we have from Pittsburgh, I love those guys. I played against some of those guys in high school. It’s great we can be teammates now.”

Adams is the only one of the four no longer playing for the Irish. He was medically disqualified in 2018 with a lengthy list of injuries that piled up since high school, but he’s still on scholarship and around the team. Only two of the coaches that watched Hinish and Adams play in person remain on Notre Dame’s staff: Kelly and Elston.

Something about Pittsburgh seems to breed loyalty and dedication.

“A lot of the people from there are blue collar, hard-working people,” Hinish said. “It’s the kind of mindset that me and some of my teammates from Pittsburgh bring to this facility every day. It’s a bring your lunch pail to work type of mentality every day. We kind of carry the blue collar attitude on our sleeves. That’s just the way we go about our day.”

Hinish embodies that to the extreme. He refers to his work on the defensive line as playing in the jungle. He’s taken inspiration from his father, a colon cancer survivor.

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

COVID-19 protocols haven’t prevented Hinish from continuing his bonus workouts with director of football performance Matt Balis on Tuesday mornings. Hinish has described those workout sessions as both brutal and great.

Whatever Hinish is doing, it seems to be working. He’s started the last 17 games for the Irish at nose guard and continues to make improvements. This season he’s tallied five tackles, four tackles for a loss and one sack. Through four games, he’s nearly matched his tackles for loss total of 4.5 from last season.

“He’s played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “He’s smart. He can read stances. He can sense where the back is lined up. He’s a guy that watches a lot of film and knows football really well. A very savvy football player.

“Not only does he have the strength and the physical ability, but he’s a smart football player. A high IQ guy. He knows what they’re trying to do scheme-wise and can defeat that scheme in front of him because of his veteran experience and his ability to watch a lot of film and know his opponent.”

Kelly indicated that Hinish has been playing “banged up,” but Hinish shrugged off any worry about his health.

“I’m great. I feel fine to be honest with you,” Hinish said. “I don’t have any injuries that will hold me back.”

Coming off a dominant performance in a 12-7 victory over Louisville, Notre Dame’s defense returned to form following some lapses the week prior against Florida State that turned into 26 points. But don’t suggest to Hinish that the Florida State result was less than ideal.

“We showed up and played football,” Hinish said of the Louisville rebound. “I wouldn’t say that our performance against Florida State was less than ideal. We showed up and played. We had a great plan. It was simple and it was solid.”

Notre Dame’s defense ranks among the top 20 in the FBS in rushing defense (No. 19; 107.5 yards per game), passing yards allowed (No. 18; 193.3) and scoring defense (No. 4; 11.5 points per game). Only one other team (Oklahoma State) is allowing third-down conversions at a lower rate than Notre Dame’s 20.8 percent.

A continuation of those kinds of numbers should put Hinish in position to win in Heinz Field for the third time. It would be a personal accomplishment only made possible by a team effort. Hinish wouldn’t have it any other way.

“How hard we play,” Hinish said, “and the effort we put up on tape shows how much you love the guy in the room next to you.”

Nose guard Kurt Hinish (41) is one of two Irish players taking advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 exemption and returning in 2021 for a fifth playing season at Notre Dame.
Pittsburgh product Kurt Hinish (41) will return to play in Heinz Field for the fourth time on Saturday, but for the first time as Notre Dame’s nose guard. Pictured, Hinish pressures USC quarterback Kedon Slovis last season.
Notre Dame nose guard Kurt Hinish (41) celebrates after a sack against Louisville last season.

“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.”

Notre Dame nose guard Kurt Hinish of his father, a colon cancer survivor