Throughout his life, Notre Dame fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey has aspired to emulate his older cousin, 31-year-old Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, named the 2016 NFL Most Valuable Player after leading the franchise to Super Bowl LI.
It was not long ago that Ryan was experiencing the throes of a four-win season (4-12 in 2013) like McGlinchey did in 2016 (4-8). Prior to last year, Ryan was part of three straight campaigns where his team did not finish above .500. Yet it was not by accident he led his Falcons to the NFC Championship this past season.
“I think the only way a turnaround can occur is by the mindset that you have and the work that you put into it,” said McGlinchey following Notre Dame’s initial spring practice this Wednesday, before he and the rest of the student body would go on spring break from March 11-19. “I know for a fact that Matt worked his ass off since the season ended the year previous. He got to know the playbook a little better, got his fundamentals back, his strength, his health … I’ve looked up to Matt for my entire life and it’s something where anything he does I’m always trying to mimic.
“It would certainly be a pretty good turnaround if I could have the turnaround he had last year.”
McGlinchey already has experienced one bounce back campaign at Notre Dame. During his sophomore year the Irish lost four straight games, and five of six, before pulling a 31-28 mini-upset of LSU in the Music City Bowl — McGlinchey’s first career start. They then began the next season 10-1 while in the four-team College Football Playoff hunt right until the final play of the 2015 regular season.
A similar rise from the ashes in 2017 is anticipated by McGlinchey, a third-team Associated Press All-American last year despite the woes. With six new on-field coaches providing a needed vibrancy and a first-year strength and conditioning coordinator in Matt Balis who has vigorously challenged the overall operation, McGlinchey foresees another upheaval for the better.
“Our program has done a complete 180 in terms of the energy and attitude around this building,” McGlinchey said. “The changes that Coach [Brian] Kelly has made, both in his approach and also the people he has brought into this building, have provided a spark that you can kind of feel that something good is building here. …
“It’s just the way that everybody comes to work. There is a life and an energy in here now that is just tremendous. Everybody is excited, everybody is growing, you’re seeing improvement, you’re seeing guys’ bodies change, you’re seeing guys last longer in ‘The Gug.’ At night time I’m walking in the halls … there are more guys in the film room, there are more guys working out together, there are more guys doing drills. The change and the motivation has reached across all aspects of our program and we’re really excited about where it’s going.
“It’s only March and you need to do a lot of work before September and August hit, but we’re on the right track.”
From his own standpoint, the 6-8 ¼, 312-pound McGlinchey has improved his 225-pound bench press reps from 16 last year to 24 this winter, according to Kelly.
“'Built by Balis', I guess you can say,” said McGlinchey of his physical strides. “Coach Balis has been a blessing on our program and he has done things for me and everyone else — the way we’re training, how we’re training and everything that encompasses performance, the detail that he takes and the pride that he takes in doing his job and affecting all areas of our football team is something tremendous.
“The last couple of weeks I’ve probably put on about eight to 10 pounds … done pretty well in my strength numbers. It’s all attributable to him and the way he has us work and prepare. We have to do the work, but he’s the guy leading us to the oasis.”
Similar to 2015 when assistant coach Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had 68 career starts returning and top NFL picks in left tackle Ronnie Stanley (first round) and center Nick Martin (second round), this year’s unit will enter the new season with 75 career starts — led by McGlinchey’s team high 26 straight — after entering last season with only 27.
Last year there were three new starters up front, plus McGlinchey made the shift from right tackle to left tackle. This year four of the five starters return, and sophomore Tommy Kraemer, one of Notre Dame’s top 5 recruits the past three years, is projected as the fifth for now. The change in position last season took McGlinchey a little out of his comfort zone, but he makes no alibis for an inordinate amount of illegal procedure penalties called on him.
“I don’t think the position change had anything to do with it other than just where my head was at or what I was trying to do on those specific plays,” he said. “There’s no excuse for the 12 — I think it was — penalties I had last year. It’s something that I’m just going to fix. There’s no other way to say it than I’m not going to go false start anymore.”
Although he has been projected to be Notre Dame’s third consecutive first-round left tackle (teammate/senior Quenton Nelson, also a 2016 third-team AP All-American, could be the first guard taken) and follow in the footsteps of Stanley (2013-15) and current All-Pro Zack Martin (2010-13), McGlinchey knew since last season that the NFL could wait, just as it did for Martin and Stanley.
“I’m not going into the NFL to be a ‘first round on paper,’ ” McGlinchey replied on what prompted him to return. “I want to be the best that I can be when I get there. I’m setting myself up for a career there. Going in early or going in when you know that you have so many areas that you can improve and become the best that you can be — and the best hopefully in the country — at what you do, that’s kind of the motivation for why I came back individually.
“Everybody has areas of improvement, areas that need to develop. I wasn’t in any position to want to go to the NFL. I wanted to be the best that I could be and learn from the best coach in the country. I’m very comfortable with where I’m at right now. ... It’s a trend here [on the line] that we want to continue to learn and be the best that we can be and have the success that we know we can have before we make any decisions because other people are telling us that we’re ready to go.
“We know how to look in the mirror, look on the film and know what we can improve and how to get to where we want to go.”
For Kelly, it is Notre Dame’s responsibility to see that McGlinchey achieve his goals because it would benefit the greater team good as well.
“He came back with a want and desire to improve in the weight room,” Kelly said. “So there was a commitment that we needed to make to him that we were going to get it to the end for him — bigger, faster, stronger. … We owed him something on our end as well as to physically develop him, mentally develop him as a captain as a leader and then develop his skill. We moved him over to left tackle and there was an adjustment period for him there.
“Obviously, Harry’s work with him is crucial as well. This was kind of a deal: you come back and finish off at Notre Dame, you help us win a championship and we’re going to help develop you physically. We’re going to help you in your leadership skills and we’re going to help you with your skills so that translates next year. As you help Notre Dame football, it’s going to help you physically.”
The hunger to atone for last season was evident to McGlinchey from the time the second semester began on Jan. 17.
“We had been off for eight weeks, and guys were a little pissed off about that,” McGlinchey said. “It’s just one of those things that we felt change needed to be made from the players first and we’ve certainly seen those take place here so far, and hopefully we’ll continue to grow in those.”
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