Notebook: Clearing up Notre Dame's off-the-field O-line drama

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Head coach Brian Kelly (left) still considers retired former Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (right) an asset to the Notre Dame football program.

SOUTH BEND — Jeff Quinn’s childhood dream was to grow up to be a dentist, and many of the Notre Dame fourth-year offensive line coach’s critics probably are wishing this week that he had gotten his way.

Saddled with the third-worst sacks per game surrendered among the 130 FBS teams (4.4) and the nation’s fourth-worst rushing yards-per-carry average (2.4), the Irish offensive line is staring down another imposing challenge Saturday night (7:30 EDT; ACC Network) in Blacksburg, Va.

Host Virginia Tech (3-1) is the best sacking team that 14th-ranked Notre Dame (4-1) has faced or will face this season (tied for 17th, at 3.25 per game). The next closest to that among the remaining Irish opponents are North Carolina and Georgia Tech, tied for 65th.

Against the Hokies, the Irish will have to navigate it presumably with a silent count to combat the crowd noise and any impromptu reprises of Metallica’s Enter Sandman, an anthem at Lane Stadium.

More than likely, the Irish offense will be working with a quarterback making his first collegiate start, in sophomore Drew Pyne. The alternative is four-game starter Jack Coan, who had limited escapability even before suffering a leg injury Sept. 25 against Wisconsin.

Chat Transcript:Talking Notre Dame QBs — short term and long, WRs, assistants and O-line

Players to Watch:Four players to watch in Saturday game between No. 14 Notre Dame and Virginia Tech

The soundtrack running in the background this week for all this was an innocent reference, though without much context, on a Notre Dame podcast regarding former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (2012-17 at ND). Now retired and still living in South Bend, Hiestand reportedly reconnected with some former Notre Dame offensive linemen, who he had recruited to ND.

The subsequent reporting on the topic was inconsistent in its detail from outlet to outlet, as well as the implications of exactly what this meant in Jeff Quinn’s world. That included the suggestion that it constituted a referendum on Quinn’s ability to coach.

In my research, I was told this wasn’t an in-season thing, and that it involved four players with NFL aspirations who are all now in the NFL.

So I asked head coach Brian Kelly for clarity on this issue during Thursday’s weekly Zoom meeting with the media. His response:

“Regarding our former players, yeah, Harry obviously still lives in town and those guys needed somebody, because they stayed locally,” Kelly said. “Harry, obviously, with his availability, trained those guys. We can't do it here. 

“Our offensive line coach, Jeff Quinn's not available to train, nor is any offensive staff or defensive staff training guys that are moving on to the NFL. So, it was really fortunate that with these guys having apartments that are still under lease through the draft, that they were able to come back here.

“With Harry being in town, it worked out great that they were able to hook up with him and get some work with an experienced offensive line coach that coached in the NFL and here at Notre Dame to get some work. 

“So we're all for it. We're happy for them that they were able to get that kind of training, but it's not something that college coaches can do for guys that move on after they've graduated.

“We're embroiled in recruiting and doing other things. It's just a good situation all around that he's still in town here and he was available to work with those guys."   

End of story?

Here’s my postscript:

• Hiestand is a Hall of Fame-caliber coach. He’s also a class act. It’s my belief he’d never do anything to undermine Quinn or any other offensive line coach, for that matter.

When Hiestand had moved on to the Chicago Bears in 2018 and former protegee Mike McGlinchey was a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers that year, McGlinchey told me Hiestand was coaching him from a distance while McGlinchey was participating in rookie minicamp.

That’s in spite of the fact the 49ers and Bears were scheduled to play each other in the 2018 season (the Bears won, 14-9).

“Just making sure I’m on the right track and handling myself the right way,” McGlinchey said of Hiestand’s involvement.

• In a results-driven profession, Quinn’s handling of admittedly extreme circumstances — four new O-line starters and then four left tackles because of injury on top of it — is still difficult to endorse.

But so is the popular narrative that this season is proof that Quinn never deserved to be hired in the first place and that it was only because of Kelly’s previous association with Quinn that it happened.

To that I’d add these excerpts from Quinn’s track record with Kelly:

In their last 49 games together at Division II school Grand Valley State, with Quinn the offensive line coach/offensive coordinator, the combined record was 47-2 with two national titles.

In the nine previous seasons in which they have coached together at the FBS level — three at Central Michigan (2004-06), three at Cincinnati (2007-09), three at Notre Dame (2018-20), the national ranking in total offense in each of those teams never sank below 43rd (2019).

In those years, Quinn's had his NFL standouts too — notably four-time Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce and former six-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Staley.

• Quinn embraced Hiestand’s high bar and many of his methods upon his succeeding Hiestand, and he said he wanted to build upon them, not rearrange and repurpose them.

Before Quinn spent three seasons (2015-17) as an analyst at ND, soaking in Hiestand’s madness and methods up close, he attended Hiestand’s clinics when the latter was in his first tour of duty as O-line coach for the Chicago Bears. And Quinn worked at Hiestand’s camps when Hiestand was working at the University of Illinois in the same capacity.

But Quinn is not Hiestand. Doesn’t try to be. He’s got his own strengths and his blind spots. And it’s my belief if after the 2021 season any of Kelly’s assistants aren’t performing up to the higher post-2016 standards, they won’t be around to see 2022 at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., is out for the season with a torn MCL in his knee/

Wilkins out with torn MCL

Senior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. had what Irish head coach Brian Kelly called a “transformational” offseason heading into the 2021 season.

He’ll need another one this offseason, following Thursday’s news that a torn MCL in his knee will end Wilkins’ season. He suffered the injury during ND’s 24-13 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound North Fort Myers, Fla., product played in a reserve role in each of ND’s first five games this season, recording four receptions for 63 yards and a TD.

His departure from the roster opens up more opportunities for surging freshman Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles Jr., but leaves the Irish with just six healthy scholarship wide receivers.

And Tyler too?

In both Saturday’s postgame press conference and again on Monday, Kelly stressed his priority of identifying a No. 1 quarterback and forming an offensive identity around him.

That after playing three QBs — grad senior Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne and freshman Tyler Buchner — in ND’s 24-13 loss to Cincinnati, in which Pyne was most effective.

Buchner has played a tag-team role in three of ND’s first five games this season and likely would have played against Wisconsin on Sept. 25 had a tight hamstring not sidelined him.

Kelly clarified Thursday that Buchner’s complementary role wasn’t necessarily out of play, moving forward.

"I think what I was saying, more than anything else, was that it's important to really rally behind one quarterback,” Kelly said Thursday, “but it doesn't take (away) the opportunity for us to be multiple if we feel like Tyler Buchner can add to what we're doing as a part of our offense. 

“I don't want to call him a Wildcat, because he's not. He can do much more. But offenses use that as part of their established offensive structure. So we needed an established singular offensive structure.

“But if we feel like we need to add to it to be better at moving the football, I wouldn't say Tyler Buchner is out of the options of playing in any game this year." 

Status updates

Kelly said starting nose guard Kurt Hinish has been cleared to play Saturday after missing the past two games with what originally began with a run through ND’s concussion protocol.

• Starting tight end Michael Mayer (adductor strain), ND’s leading receiver (32 receptions, 360 yards, 3 TDs), is being limited in practice this week with Kelly optimistic the strategy will pay off in Mayer being available to play Saturday.

“We've done a little bit each day,” Kelly said. “We'll do a little bit more (Thursday) in the red zone with him and on third down, which are obviously key components to his effectiveness for us. So, it's been a good progression for us.”

• The left tackle position may be its healthiest in weeks Saturday, with Tosh Baker (concussion) being cleared after missing Saturday’s loss to UC and with Michael Carmody (ankle) being able to practice this week.

Since opening-game starter Blake Fisher went down Sept 5 with a long-term knee injury, Carmody, Baker and most recently Joe Alt have all played significant snaps at the position. Kelly also revealed guard Quinn Carroll has been working at tackle this week in practice.

• Sophomore tight end Kevin Bauman, a key backup, remains on track to return from a broken fibula later this month.

Bauman suffered the injury in the Sept. 5 opener at Florida State, and his original prognosis was a six-week recovery.

"Kevin Bauman is making really good progress,” Kelly said. “He's out of the boot. He's walking. His progress is — again, it's bone growth, and he's been on the bone stem. He's done everything. We're going to be in that timeline. 

“We're approaching a pretty critical phase here right now in terms of we start to do some more work. As long as we don't have any stress reactions to that, we feel like we're going to be right on target for Kevin. So, it's a positive thing."

• After an impactful performance against Wisconsin on Sept. 25, Irish sophomore vyper end Jordan Botelho was limited to four non-special teams snaps last Saturday against Cincinnati.

The reduction was related to matchups/scheme, Kelly said.

“ He's still in a competitive battle for playing time at that vyper position with Isaiah (Foskey) and Justin (Ademilola),” Kelly said. “So, he's doing a nice job. He's making really good progress. He's part of our different packages, particularly on third down.

“But that was much more schematic relative to their heavy packages, that we wanted to match personnel. That's why you got much more Jordan Botelho against Wisconsin."

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. VIRGINIA TECH 

Who: No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. Virginia Tech (3-1) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Lane Stadium; Blacksburg, Va. 

TV: ACC Network 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 1 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI