'Big dog' Kurt Hinish embracing new challenges of final year in Notre Dame's defense
Cain Madden didn’t realize his mistake.
The Marshall grad transfer made himself comfortable in the living room of his summer housing at Notre Dame. Madden, an offensive guard, knew Irish nose guard Kurt Hinish would be one of his roommates, but he didn’t realize he chose to sit in his recliner.
“I walked up,” Hinish said, “and I was just like, ‘What’s up?’
“In his country accent that he has, he’s like, ‘What’s going on?’
“I was like, ‘Nothing. You’re in the big dog’s chair. I’m just letting you know.’
“He was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
“I was like, ‘No, you can sit there, but I’m just letting you know. You're in the big dog’s chair.’
“Then I grabbed my stuff and went upstairs.”
Hinish was only messing with his new teammate and short-term roommate, but if any Notre Dame player deserves to be called a big dog, Hinish should meet the qualifications. Hinish loves playing for the Irish so much, he opted to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA offered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Hinish played in all but one of the 51 games in his first four seasons at Notre Dame and this season should set a program record for games played. His selection as a captain for the 2021 season was a no-brainer decision.
Hinish is so well-respected within the program that head coach Brian Kelly cited Hinish’s relationship with Madden as a reason why the offensive lineman was able to transition into a leadership role in a new program.
“Cain rooms with Kurt Hinish,” Kelly said. “Kurt is a very popular player on our team. So by virtue of that relationship, Cain has been embedded into our football team from that perspective. He's well-liked. His personality fits in very well with the guys.”
► Keeping the faith:Tagovailoa-Amosa honors father's legacy with transcendent transition
► Another Hinish:Younger brother Donovan Hinish is committed to Notre Dame
Madden and Hinish became fast friends with their appreciation for hunting and fishing. Madden quickly became part of cornhole and card games at Hinish’s house with linebacker Drew White, defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and long snapper Michael Vinson. Madden has since moved into new housing for the fall semester leaving Vinson as the only non-captain in his house.
“It was great to kind of show (Madden) the ropes a little bit when he was at the house with me,” Hinish said. “Now he’s picking up and becoming a leader on the offensive line.”
The leadership role bestowed upon Hinish as a captain is one he’s spent serious time considering. He was always going to help backup nose guards Howard Cross III and Aidan Keanaaina continue to develop even if the running joke on the defensive line is that one day off can turn into a Wally Pipp situation with so much depth at each position.
As a captain, Hinish wants to help identify issues and address them as soon as possible. It seems fitting that a nose guard would embrace taking a head-on approach to a challenge.
With Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa, Notre Dame’s defensive line is represented twice among the seven team captains. Hinish credited defensive line coach Mike Elston for creating an environment that allows his players to grow into leaders. Defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji were both captains last season.
“It fosters leadership because you care for one another so much,” Hinish said. “It’s not only you’re teammates, but you care for one another outside of football too. It’s the kind of relationships he’s helped us build with one another. It’s really cool.”
The strength of those relationships was illustrated in the past couple weeks when Tagovailoa-Amosa learned of the death of his father. He was informed of his captaincy while at home in Hawaii for the funeral.
“Myron’s a very tough and spiritual dude,” Hinish said. “My heart goes out to him and his family. As a leader, he’s everything you could ask for. He leads by example.”
Both Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa were part of the 2016 recruiting class that chose to enroll at Notre Dame following the worst season of the Kelly Era. It was a group convinced it would help the Irish return to glory. The class reaffirmed that commitment to each other following the 38-20 loss to Stanford to end the 2017 regular season with a third defeat.
“We all texted in the group chat, ‘We're going to change this football program around.’ The next year we went to the semifinals,” Hinish said. “The year after that, we went to a New Year’s Six game and then the year after that we went to the semifinals again.”
One more chance at a national championship for Hinish will come in new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s aggressive scheme. Hinish was easily swayed in Freeman’s favor when he learned that Freeman wasn’t afraid to mix it up between a three-man and four-man front.
In a three-man front, the nose guard will typically line up head-to-head against the center in what’s known as the zero technique.
“The zero nose is the best position to play in football,” Hinish said. “I love being in the middle. I love mixing it up inside.
“We always say to the defensive ends or linebackers, if you come inside, you’re coming into the jungle. You have to put your big-boy pads on. That’s where I thrive. I love it in there.”
As Madden has learned and center Jarrett Patterson has long known, that’s where the big dog eats.
“I love going against a center one on one because I can get my hands on him before he can snap the ball back to the quarterback and get his hands back onto me,” Hinish said. “I feel like it’s unfair for the center, and I don’t care. I love it.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.