Every year, a portion of Notre Dame fans make the same inquiry: “Why is it Notre Dame can recruit top offensive linemen so well, but has problems signing impact defensive linemen?”
Lou Holtz, the 1986-96 Fighting Irish head coach, provided the answer nearly 30 years ago when he spoke about the mentality and advanced maturity of offensive linemen.
“They’re the kind of people who know exactly what classes they will take two semesters from now, they tend to marry at a younger age than the average player, and very rarely will you read in a newspaper about an offensive lineman stealing a motorcycle or car like you would about a defensive lineman or player, who tends to be more wild,” Holtz summarized.
Under sixth-year Fighting Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, Notre Dame continues to sign bonanza hauls. This year’s four-man harvest with tackles Aaron Banks (6-5, 320) and Joshua Lugg (6-6, 280), and interior prospects Robert Hainsey (6-4, 275) and Dillan Gibbons (6-4, 315), again ranks among the top 5-10 in the country, similar to the five-man group in 2013 — with current projected first-round pick Mike McGlinchey “the long-range project” — the four-man line in 2014, highlighted by five-star and potential first-round pick Quenton Nelson, or even last year’s three-man class with Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg and Parker Boudreaux.
On Signing Day this year, Hiestand was again the first assistant coach put in front of the podium. That is because the offensive linemen are often the first to sign — as Holtz said — if not already be enrolled (like Banks and Hainsey are). It was apropos because Hiestand demands that his linemen be the first at practice and the last to leave.
When asked what’s in his “secret sauce” that allows the Fighting Irish to consistently recruit so well along the offensive line, Hiestand credited foremost the understanding and appreciation that his players have about their future beyond football.
"It’s really pretty simple: It’s Notre Dame,” Hiestand said. “Guys come here and take time and are thoughtful in making decisions for the right reasons and can separate the fantasy world of recruiting and the reality. They have a vision of what they want to do with their lives as far as the things that are important to them … education, life after football, being at a place that’s going to be committed to helping them really truly be the best that they can be in every area — this place gets those guys.”
He pointed to returning starters McGlinchey and Nelson (both AP third-team All-Americans last year) who could have been very high draft picks this year but thought beyond those terms. Same with current three-time Pro Bowl pick (two-time All-Pro) Zack Martin, who returned for a fifth season in 2013. Same with 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley, who likewise returned for his senior year despite being projected as a potential first-rounder after his junior campaign.
Then they see an engineering major such as center Sam Mustipher, or right tackle Alex Bars, who also has a potential NFL career ahead of him at tackle or guard and is the son of a former Irish player.
“You come up here and spend time with the people at this university and see how interested they are in your success as a human, as a young man that’s going through all the challenges of being 18, 19, 20 years old,” Hiestand said. “There’s this community here that, ‘Boy, if I come here, I’ll be able to reach these goals that I’ve got set.’ And they also understand that no matter how great they play and if they go to the NFL, that at age 34 or 35 it’s all going to be over, no matter how much money they made or how successful your career was, whichever way it goes.
“At age 34, ‘Now what?’ At a place like Notre Dame, they’re able to see that there’s all types of opportunities created through the strength of the university degree and the people outside that are now out and about the country, they know what these guys are going through. They know how hard it was for them and they see these athletes that are doing well in school and football, and they can’t wait to help them with an opportunity.”
Hiestand especially emphasizes that “coaching” will come in all areas of their life.
“I’m now responsible to continue them in the path that their parents started them on with doing the right things and being the best that they can be at everything that they do,” said Hiestand, a father of four. “That’s a charge that I take very seriously. So every day it isn’t just about, ‘Can you get your head across that three technique?’ It’s about the effort you put forth in class, that you’re on time, that you’re meeting the responsibilities that you have as a student at Notre Dame and as an athlete. That’s what I tell them in recruiting, and that’s what they get when they get here. There are no surprises.”
In a conversation recently with early entrant Banks, Hiestand was pleased to hear there were no surprises for the California native and that the school was exactly as he envisioned it throughout the recruiting process. When Hiestand asked Banks what he liked best, he received the reply he expects.
“He said, ‘The support I get from the players and the university to make my adjustment,’ ” Hiestand stated. “I thought it was a very mature comment he made that the people here helping you, whether it’s in the weight room, whether it’s in academics, it’s all set up. All you have to do is do the work.
“He said, ‘I can see if I just work hard, I’ve got all this stuff lined up for me. I’ve got help, I’ve got tutors, I’ve got teachers that care, I’ve got coaches that care, I’ve got the weight room, I’ve got it all. Now I’ve just got to bust my tail.’ I thought that was a pretty good observation.”
The examples from a Martin to a McGlinchey provide a template that go beyond any NFL aspirations.
“That’s what we’re after — that when you leave Notre Dame, that’s the best version of Mike McGlinchey, of Zack Martin, and you’re ready to go on your life, whether it’s pro football or whatever it might be, and you’re ready to handle all the things that are going to come your way that are potentially going to knock you off the path," Hiestand said. "Mental toughness and physical toughness get developed in time.
“Everybody goes at different speeds there, not all one blanket that we’re all ready at certain times. Mike coming back for his senior year when a lot of people were telling him that he’s ready to go — he knew he needed to come back and work on things. That’s a mature, smart approach to it, because when he goes, he wants to go and have success, not just go.”
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