Notebook: Madden pushing to translate summer culture shock to on-field success at ND

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Tackle Josh Lugg (75) and offensive guard Cain Madden (62) during Notre Dame football practice, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center.

SOUTH BEND — Kurt Hinish in June tried to tell 24-year-old incoming transfer offensive guard Cain Madden about how much his world was about to change.

Hinish’s fellow captain and Madden’s new Notre Dame teammate, defensive end Myron Tagoavailoa-Amosa, echoed those sentiments. Repeatedly. Madden — a sixth-year senior with All-America credentials at his old school, Marshall — rolled his eyes.

“I was being hard-headed,” Madden said earlier this week after practice. “I was like, ‘No way. I’ve already been through this.’ I should have listened.”

As one of four new starters on ninth-ranked Notre Dame’s uber-scrutinized offensive line, the growth process individually and collectively at his new school hasn’t ever gotten to the point of being easy.

The Irish (4-0) head into Saturday’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup with No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) 128th out of 130 FBS teams in sacks allowed (5.25 per game) and 122nd in rushing offense (80 yards a game).

But compared to his first few weeks this summer in the weight room with Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis?

“Coming in with coach Balis, he’s a different animal now,” the 6-foot-3, 310-pound South Webster, Ohio, product, said. “Coach Balis is a great guy. He and his staff — oh my goodness. Nothing but great words about all those guys in that room.

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“It was hard, but it was fun. To get around the team and see them work and how hard they worked, it opened my eyes up and I realized I made a good decision.”

He continues to try to show Notre Dame and its fan base the Irish made a good decision in wrestling him away from Florida State, among others, during the transfer process by using the same patience and process he employed in going from a zero-star prospect coming out of high school to starter to star at Marshall.

Marshall grad transfer offensive guard Cain Madden, a 2020 All-American, committed to joining Notre Dame in June for the 2021 season.

“I think the biggest thing is consistency,” Madden said. “I don’t want to be up and down. I was taught that from an old offensive line coach: ‘If you’re going to be 100 percent one day and 60 percent one day, you don’t know what you’re going to get.’ 

“I think that was the biggest thing — just being consistent. Being there for them and not being hard-headed. Just learning new things and listening. 

“I think the biggest challenge is (it’s) like a different mindset. I’ve been engrained with some coaching points, and now these coaching points are a little different. So now I just have to switch my mindset a little bit, learn a few new techniques and just play football.”

QB intrigue continues

Chances are that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will play two quarterbacks Saturday against Cincinnati as the Irish look to extend the nation’s second-longest active home win streak to 27 games.

But which two? And who will be the first to take a snap Saturday? Kelly sort of danced around all those specifics Thursday during his Zoom session with the media.

"In our two-minute drill yesterday, we had (Jack) Coan in there,” Kelly said. “I thought he did a pretty good job. He's ahead of where I thought he would be on Wednesday. And obviously he’s got today and tomorrow.

“Drew (Pyne) and Jack have kind of split the first-team reps, and then we've continued to work Tyler's (Buchner) package that he's traditionally had in weeks past. So, we're getting all three of them ready right now." 

Coan has started all four games this season after transferring in from Wisconsin in February, but he left Notre Dame’s 41-13 win over his former team Saturday in Chicago in the middle of the third quarter with a leg injury.

Sophomore Pyne saw his first action of the season in relief of Coan, and flourished against the nation’s No. 2 team in total defense. He completed 6-of-8 passes for 81 yards and a TD.

Buchner, a freshman, played in games 2 and 3 this season, against Toledo and Purdue. In just 27 collective snaps in those games, he’s ND’s second-leading rusher this season with 92 yards on 10 carries and a team-leading 9.2-yard average. He’s 3-of-4 passing for 78 yards and a TD.

He left the Purdue game with a tight hamstring and didn’t play against Wisconsin for the same reason.   

"Buchner's back to where he was going into where he got a really good sense of the game against Toledo and Purdue,” Kelly said. “I think we're back to that level and hope to increase that as we go into next week.

“We wanted to make sure he was physically feeling great. He looks great this week, so I think he's back to that level. And then we'll start to build back more inventory into what we're doing offensively with him."

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan (17) hands off to Kyren Williams (23) during ND's 41-13 conquest of Wisconsin on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Injury/personnel updates

The original prognosis for freshman left offensive tackle Blake Fisher’s return from a torn meniscus suffered in ND’s Sept. 5 opener at Florida State was eight weeks.

And now?

”That injury is generally something that takes you through most of the season, if not the entire season,” Kelly said Thursday. “So, we're not in a position where we're thinking about him each week.

“It's kind of like, ‘Go through your process and make sure you're not missing any rehab.’ And if (trainer) Rob Hunt comes to me in week 10 and says, 'Hey, we're well ahead of schedule,' then we'll get our hopes up then.

“But this is something that's not even part of something we think about on a day-to-day basis that Blake is going to be back with us during the season."

Fisher, only the second freshman offensive lineman in the past 50 seasons to start an opener for Notre Dame, had surgery on Sept. 9. Since then, three other players have seen action at the left tackle spot — another freshmen and essentially two redshirt freshmen.

Irish freshman offensive tackle Blake Fisher during Notre Dame football practice Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center.

• Michael Carmody was the first to step in for Fisher, relieving in the FSU game and starting Sept. 11 against Toledo, but he suffered an ankle injury in the 32-29 win over the Rockets and hasn’t played since.

Tosh Baker and Joe Alt have filled in for Carmoday, with Alt also playing some tight end/H-back.

"Carmody has been getting a lot of work at left tackle,” Kelly said Thursday. “He too is improving each week. So, we think we're in the right kind of position for him to be able to play on Saturday at left tackle."

• Grad senior nose guard Kurt Hinish on Saturday will miss his second straight game in what was originally diagnosed as a concussion, but Kelly said he expects the Irish captain to return for a road test at Virginia Tech (3-1) on Oct. 9.

“Kurt went and saw a specialist,” Kelly said. “He was cleared from having any kind of head injury. It was something different, so he's excited, but he won't play this weekend.”

Hinish has five tackles with a sack this season.

Junior Howard Cross III made his first collegiate start last Saturday against Wisconsin in Hinish’s place. He has five tackles this season, with a tackle for loss and a team-high four quarterback hurries. 

“He has extreme first-step quickness,” Kelly said of Cross. “He is off the ball — very, very difficult to get your hands on him. It starts there. He's about 280 pounds, but he's very, very strong. Strongest hands that we have for an interior lineman.

“You saw how quick (Jacob) Lacey is off the ball. Those two guys are as quick as we have that hover in that 275-280 range. But Howard's hands are so heavy and his first step quickness is as good as we've had here at Notre Dame."

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI