Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand gives the impression that you’d have to hit him over the head with a tire iron before he’d give in.
His offensive linemen like that image and have taken it upon themselves to offer a mirror reflection of their position coach.
But when Hiestand looks at the Alabama defense - which ranks No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense and No. 2 in scoring defense - he takes a realistic approach to the daunting task that awaits the Irish come Jan. 7 in the BCS national championship game.
“We need to play like we’re capable, and that will be good enough,” Hiestand said. “But if we don’t play as well as we’re capable on each play, they’ll take advantage of whatever we’re not doing well.
“They get off blocks and make plays as well as anybody we’ve seen this year. So we’ve got to play our best, got to play good football, got to be sound, got to be playing like we’re capable of, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Hiestand knows what it’s like to go against high quality defensive front players in the SEC on a weekly, even daily, basis. Prior to his arrival, Hiestand spent two seasons at Tennessee, where the Vols struggled mightily to return to Tennessee form.
“They’ve gotten a ton of publicity for the quality of the teams they have down there,” said Hiestand of the SEC. “There are a lot of them in one conference. All the publicity they’ve gotten about how good of players they have is true.
“Just look at the NFL rosters and who’s getting drafted and where the players that are having a lot of success in the professional ranks are coming from. It’s a very, very strong conference with a lot of very good football players in a place where the passion is really high for football. It’s very similar here. The people are just passionate about Notre Dame football, and that’s what you see in the SEC.”
Some of those passionate Notre Dame fans were a bit perplexed by what they were seeing from the Irish offensive line early in the 2012 season, Hiestand’s first in South Bend. Through the first four games, Notre Dame’s rushing attack had experienced more failure than success. Coupled with the fact that Hiestand came from a struggling Tennessee program, there were those who quickly began to wonder if Hiestand was the right choice to replace Ed Warinner, who had moved on to Ohio State to be a part of Urban Meyer’s staff.
After rushing for 293 yards and five touchdowns in the season-opening victory against Navy, the Irish struggled on the ground the next three weeks. Notre Dame managed just 268 yards rushing on 101 carries (2.6-yard average) against Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan combined.
So when it is suggested to Hiestand that his troops have played top-notch football from start to finish of the 2012 regular season, he simply can’t concur.
“I wish I could agree with you that we had great line play,” Hiestand said. “We’ve had times where we’ve done very well, but our inconsistency is a concern. That’s something we’re working hard on now.”
It was over the final eight games of the regular season that the offensive front of, from right to left, Christian Lombard, Mike Golic, Jr., Braxston Cave, Chris Watt and Zack Martin, began to come into its own.
From the Miami game in Week Five through the final regular-season game at USC - a span of eight games -- the Irish rushed for 1,869 yards on 340 carries (5.5-yard average) and 14 touchdowns.
One by one, Hiestand explained the positive contributions of the starting five, which has remained intact every step of the way.
“Zack being a captain tells you what the team thinks of him. He does a great job of inspiring others and bringing a winning attitude every day into the building.
“Braxston, having all the experience that he has, is a very compassionate guy that looks out for others and tries to help the younger guys and give them tips on things that maybe he didn’t do quite as good when he was a young guy.
“Chris Watt has played a lot of football for Notre Dame and is a tremendous offensive guard in any system.
“It was very important for Mike to have a good senior year, and he decided that he was going to work extra hard to fight and win a position, and he did that. That’s a testament to Mike. He’s been around here a long time and hasn’t had a lot of opportunities. But he took advantage of an opportunity, won a position, and goes out and battles for us every week.
“Christian has made progress. He was a young guy with no experience coming into the season, but always comes in to get better. He needs to continue playing physical. But we’re pleased with what Christian has been giving us.”
But for all the progress the Irish offensive line has made this season, Hiestand knows the Irish will have to be locked in against the Crimson Tide, which is allowing just 79.7 yards rushing per game and 2.46 yards per carry.
“Any positive play you get against Alabama in the run game is earned,” Hiestand said. “The key for us is we’ve got to be able to get our leverage, get after our guy, and then find a way to stay on a block without holding ‘em and give our backs a chance to find a crack.
“They do a great job of defending their gap, and then getting off blocks to the ball carrier. That will be the constant battle as the game goes on.”
If Notre Dame doesn’t win that battle, it won’t be because of a lack of effort and determination. Hiestand will see to that.