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April 29, 2014

Hiestand paves way, sets tone up front

If Mike McGlinchey was just being overly dramatic, he should consider a major in film, television and theatre.

The topic this spring afternoon was the impact of Harry Hiestand on McGlinchey's still-evolving career as an offensive tackle at Notre Dame.

"He's definitely demanding," said McGlinchey of Hiestand. "But I wouldn't want to play for anybody else in the country. He knows what it takes and he does what he needs to get us ready to play, and I believe in what he's teaching.

"He can be tough on us, but I'd rather have it that way than the other way around. He cares a lot about us and he throws a lot of himself into his job and into us. Every single offensive lineman, no matter tough he can be on us, really appreciates that kind of passion and love for the game and for us."

It has become a familiar refrain, from Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr., to Zack Martin and Chris Watt, to the players who currently comprise the offensive line. Harry Hiestand has impacted Notre Dame's offensive line in a big way since replacing Ed Warinner following the 2011 season.

In 2012, Hiestand's first year with the Irish, the ground game averaged 202.5 yards rushing per its 12 regular-season games. Notre Dame's top three running backs - Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III - combined for 2,061 yards rushing and averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

In 2013, without the benefit of a running quarterback, Notre Dame's rushing average per game dipped to 151.0 yards. The top three running backs - Cam McDaniel, Atkinson and Tarean Folston - still managed to rush for 1,730 yards and 5.2 yards per carry. Plus, with an immobile quarterback, the offensive line allowed just eight sacks.

There have been some imperfections in Hiestand's first two years at Notre Dame. The 36-carry, 52-yard rushing output against Purdue in the second game of the '12 season and the 31-carry, 94-yard effort against Michigan two games later required a Herculean performance on the defensive side of the football to secure victories. Alabama made the most emphatic statement in the national championship game by limiting Notre Dame to just 32 yards on 19 rushes.

This past season, four opponents held the Irish under 100 yards rushing, including three of the first four games against Michigan, Purdue (which would win one game all season), and Michigan State. Stanford suffocated the Irish ground attack in the regular-season finale by limiting Notre Dame to just 64 yards on 24 carries.

But Hiestand's value extends beyond the numbers. One also could argue that Hiestand has no control over the play-calling, particularly in the red zone. By the end of the 2011 season, the Irish offensive linemen were not responding positively to Warinner's coaching. In Hiestand, the unit believes in and trusts. Hiestand has sold the offensive linemen on the notion that no matter how tough he is on them, he believes in them and has their best interests at heart.

"We respect him a lot so when he's talking, we pay attention," said Martin last year. "He brings the best out of us, and his intensity makes us want to play for him. He's intense at all times. Whenever we're in this building, he's all business. He keeps us on track. That's what we needed."

Hiestand has impressed upon his offensive linemen the importance of playing together as one.

"He's big into unity," Martin said. "We're not going to run on to the field or go into any drill without the entire offensive line. Coach Hiestand wants the offensive line to be the tightest group on the field."

One of Hiestand's greatest attributes - an attribute that forces his troops to stand up and take notice -- is his accountability when the offensive line has struggled.

"If he makes a mistake, he's the first one to say it's his fault," Martin said. "We're his guys and he's our leader. It makes you feel better as an offensive lineman. He's there for us…If you do something wrong and he knows he's the one who told you to do it, he's the first one to jump up and take the blame for it. It's nice to have someone on your side and standing up for you."

Add it all up and the Irish have a pied piper-like figure instructing this close-knit unit, and it's showing itself on the recruiting trail as well. Just a few short months after arriving at Notre Dame, Hiestand helped influence Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern to commit to the Irish within days of one another, followed by John Montelus a month later. (Steve Elmer committed the previous September.)

All four linemen signed in February - Quentin Nelson, Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne and Sam Mustipher - were verbally committed to the Irish by the previous May. It's happening again this year with Jerry Tillery committing last June, Tristen Hoge pledging a couple of weeks before the Pinstripe Bowl and now Trevor Ruhland.

Each of Notre Dame's offensive line commitments since Hiestand's arrival have been at least four-star prospects except McGovern - who just completed a spring which made him a most-improved candidate - and the recently-committed Ruhland, who has four-star ability.

Offensive linemen always have had a tendency to commit early to the Irish. It's the nature of the position and makeup of the individuals who toil anonymously in the trenches. But there's no mistaking the impact Hiestand has had on the Irish and their offensive line since his arrival.

Heading into the 2014 season, Notre Dame has six offensive linemen with playing experience, despite the loss of Martin and Watt. Injuries accelerated the development of that depth in 2013. But when players such as true freshman Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty were asked to step into the starting lineup, the Irish received productive performances. First-year starter Ronnie Stanley hit the ground running at right tackle as well.

"You listen to everything he says," McGlinchey added. "You can't miss anything he's saying because it's all important and it always has a big-time effect on how you're going to be successful."

In terms of talent, development and depth, Notre Dame's offensive line is at the top of the list, thanks largely to Hiestand.

"Harry is an outstanding offensive line coach," Brian Kelly said. "The players love playing for him."

And it shows.


 




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