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Notre Dame Prepared Alex Bars For Next Level Excellence

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Photo by Bill Panzica

In recent seasons a tradition began with the Notre Dame offensive line. That tradition involves outstanding play on the field in an Irish uniform, and then becoming a top pick in the NFL Draft.

It began with Zack Martin and Chris Watt, stalwarts of the 2011-13 offensive lines that went on to become first and third round picks. Two years later, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin dominated the Irish line and were then taken in the first and second rounds. Two years after that both Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey were taken within the first nine picks of the draft after earning All-American honors.

Alex Bars was expected to continue that tradition, and for awhile everything was right on track. Bars entered the 2018 season with 27 starts under his belt, and at times during the 2017 season he played like a first round pick, but he returned for his final season to continue to improve his game and become more consistent.

That paid off, with Bars earning captain status during the offseason, and once the season started he was outstanding. He dominated the first five games of the season and was playing like an All-American, but during Notre Dame’s 38-17 victory over Stanford – a game in which Bars was playing high quality football – a Cardinal defender rolled up on his knee, ending the season and playing career for the Irish guard.

It was a devastating injury for Bars, and it took Notre Dame’s best offensive player out of the lineup. At that moment it would have made sense for Bars to do what we saw from Nick Bosa at Ohio State, start to prepare for his future, which is getting healthy and preparing for the National Football League.

Bars chose another way.

Instead of focusing on what was best for himself, Bars chose to stay with the team, and to hear him tell it, the decision was much easier for him than it might have been for most.

“First and foremost, the guys in the room,” Bars said of why he made the decision to stay with the team. “You can’t turn your back on them … Football is the ultimate team sport. It’s about the team, it’s about winning. If I could help Notre Dame win as a captain, that’s what I was going to do. That’s what being a captain is all about.

“I could still rehab there, coordinate with our doctors if need be, have the best care, be able to work out, be around the guys, and at the same time still study football,” continued Bars. “We still had eight weeks, saw different teams, saw different schemes, seeing how guys block, seeing how different players play. So it benefitted me tremendously.”

When Bars was removed from the lineup the Irish line became even more inexperienced. The left side of the line was dominated by first year starters, and its right tackle – Robert Hainsey – was just a true sophomore. Throughout the season sources reached out and discussed how much the young players were leaning on Bars, and how much Bars stepped up his leadership to an even greater degree.

Those same sources stated that Bars was very active on the field, but even more important, he would lead player only film sessions before the players met with line coach Jeff Quinn, and those sessions proved beneficial for the younger players.

“I think the guys knew they could lean on me both ways, off the field and when I was playing,” Bars explained. “I told them anytime they want to meet and watch film when I was playing. Obviously, with the injury I couldn’t play physically and be out there to support them, so my role changed a little bit in that I understood what they were going through but I was here for them to coach them from a player’s side. What’s going on with them, technique, how they are feeling out there … I couldn’t do it like when I was on the field, but in a different way.”

According to Bars, it was a two-way street. While he was able to be there for his teammates and offer support any way he could, being around his teammates was also good for him and helped him deal with the fact that his Notre Dame playing career was over.

“It was very tough, no doubt,” Bars said of the moment when he knew his season was done. “I told the guys that being around them meant way more to me than it did them. I absolutely love football, so to be around them and experience what they went through was good for me and can help me.”

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Former Irish standout Alex Bars remained heavily involved with the offensive line after his season-ending knee injury.
Photo by Angela Driskell

Bars put in work during the season to heal and get better, but it wasn’t until the season was over that he completely shifted the focus on himself and getting himself ready for the next level.

He is now out in California training at EXOS along with former Irish captain Drue Tranquill. Bars has recently starting moving around a lot more on his knee, and his strength has continued to develop. The Nashville native has also been able to avoid gaining the bad weight that can often happen with linemen when they have lower body injuries.

“They did a great job at Notre Dame with my nutrition, especially (during the winter),” Bars said. “When I came (to EXOS) I had the same body fat percentage that I had when I was playing … I’m at 321.”

Keeping his body in good shape is key for Bars as he rehabs his knee, which is ahead of schedule.

“The muscle is coming back pretty tremendously,” Bars said of his injured knee. “The quads are coming back, my muscles around there are coming back. I started straight-line running last week. I want to increase the volume of that.”

Bars has been ahead of schedule with his rehab from the beginning.

"They told me nine months, but ... I think I'm way ahead of that," Bars noted. "... When I woke up from my surgery, literally Dr. (Brian) Ratigan came into the room and was like, 'Lift up your leg,' I lifted it up and put it right back down. I've had zero complications with it, full extension, no setbacks."

NFL scouts are primarily focused on seeing Bars get healthy. He was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, which begins on February 26th. During that week Bars will get a chance to meet with NFL teams, but the most important part of that week will be teams getting a chance to look at his medicals and to check out his knee. If the feedback there is good, teams will be able to start focusing more on what he did on the field, and there is a lot to like about what Bars brings to the game.

“They talk to me about how versatile I am,” Bars said of the feedback he has received from teams. “I can play tackle, guard, some teams have talked to me about playing center, so I’ve been napping all the time out here.”

Bars started 12 games at right tackle, 13 games at right guard and seven games at left guard during his career. Snapping is also not new to the former Irish standout. He was the team’s emergency center the last two years, which meant he had previous work snapping the football.

The former Notre Dame star is ready for the next level. Playing at the highest level has been a goal for years, and playing at Notre Dame helped prepare him to be a professional in a number of ways.

“When you go to Notre Dame, you learn about time management. It prepared you,” explained the former captain. “I’m just preparing for football now. It’s awesome to be able to strictly focus on football. It’s a really easy transition. It’s a job now, and I love it. I treat it like a job, I work for it because that’s what I want, that’s the dream”

During his Notre Dame career, Bars was teammates with four linemen that went on to become first or second round draft picks. Learning early in his career from Stanley and Nick Martin, and then playing alongside Nelson and McGlinchey helped prepare Bars to become the dominant player he was through five games this past season.

“I think it’s pretty rare that every day for five years where you have prime examples of how to do it the right way,” Bars said of his Notre Dame upbringing. “Everything you’re being taught, everything you’re working towards is the right thing and the right way to do it. It works for these guys and it works for you.”

The leadership Bars showed as a fifth-year senior begins with his own character and upbringing. But learning from past teammates only enhanced his knowledge base in regards to what it takes to be that kind of leader. In the past it was players like Stanley, Martin and Nelson that set the tone, but in 2018 Bars knew his work would be what others looked up to, and he was excited to take on that responsibility.

"When they left, I knew I had to step up everything about myself so that I can be an example to the young guys so they can improve too," Bars explained. "What came before me was really important to me, because I understood what they did for me. So doing it for them, raising my level of play and showing it on film, the right way to do it, was really important to me.

"What does it say about me as a leader if I can't be consistent the entire practice," Bars continued. "Just being the same guy every play, it can be the second day of camp, the 20th day of camp, the same play, just trying to improve the same way was really important. Other guys could look to me and say, 'Bars isn't tired, I'm not tired, let's keep going, let's keep working on the technique.'"

The foundation of that level of excellence was Harry Hiestand, who was the offensive line coach at Notre Dame from 2012 to 2017. He coached Bars his first four seasons in South Bend.

“Just paying attention to detail and making sure that we understood the right way to go about playing – and off the field as well,” Bars said of the lessons he learned from Hiestand. “His technique and how meticulous he was in making sure we understood the right way and that every play was striving for that technique … I’m very, very thankful that I had him. I’ve seen some other guys’ techniques and I’m very thankful that Harry was the one to each me.”

Bars I embracing the work needed to rehab his knee and prepare for the NFL. Not once during the interview did he bring up his draft status, or his draft stock, or anything about possible contract ramifications of where he is selected. For Bars, the focus is about getting back on the field and doing something that brings him tremendous pleasure.

“I love football,” Bars said throughout the interview. “… I want to be out there so bad. I love everything about football.”

NOTE: Below are Bars highlights from the 2018 and 2017 season.

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