Notre Dame’s offensive success began with elite offensive line play in 2015, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin anchoring those efforts up front. That’s not to say DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise, Josh Adams, Chris Brown and Will Fuller weren’t good on their own, but the work done by Harry Hiestand’s group was critical in turning Notre Dame’s offense into one of the nation’s best in a 10-win season.
Stanley and Martin are gone for the 2016 season, presenting Hiestand with a difficult challenge. But heading into his fifth year at Notre Dame, Hiestand has the kind of track record that should lend plenty of confidence to the notion the Irish offensive line won’t experienced a significant dropoff without its two best players.
“He cares about us in the room, there’s no doubt about that,” Martin said. “I think that’s what you realize quick, yeah, he’ll get after you, but he wants the best from you to not only be the best football player you can be but also be the best person you can be. He demonstrates that and shares life lessons and really makes you a better person off the field as well as on the field, which really shows how much he cares about us as people.”
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Hiestand’s brand of coaching skews heavily toward tough love, but it’s that tough love that’s helped forge the successful careers of Zack Martin (a first-round pick in 2014) and Stanley (a likely first-round pick in 2016). Both Nick Martin — whose departure means there won’t be a Martin on Notre Dame’s offensive line for the first time since 2009 — and Stanley said Hiestand’s genuine nature makes that tough love effective.
“(He’s) never letting off and always trying to push you to your full potential,” Stanley said. “He’s a guy, if you’re playing good but you’re not playing the best you can, he’s going to still get on you until you can play your best. That’s the way he coaches everyone, and that’s why we try to play at such a high level is because we know he wants us to play at it.”
Redshirt freshman left guard Quenton Nelson — one of three returning starters, along with junior right guard Steve Elmer and redshirt sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey — laughed when asked if Hiestand frequently critiques blocks he thought were good.
“That happens pretty often,” Nelson said. “I think I have a good block and it’s not like he’s saying it’s a terrible block, but you could’ve done this better, you could’ve done that better. And just always having that standard of never being satisfied, you can always do something better, you can always improve.”
One of the more important undercurrents to Notre Dame’s offensive line success over the last few years has been better depth — due to a string of injuries, Hiestand didn’t have two full units with which to practice for the BCS Championship in December of 2012 — which will be replenished this fall with three incoming recruits: Rivals four-stars Parker Boudreaux and Tommy Kraemer and three-star Liam Eichenberg. Without any unexpected attrition, Notre Dame will have 15 scholarship offensive linemen in 2016, good enough for three complete units.
Hiestand recruited the nation’s No. 1 center to Notre Dame last year in Tristen Hoge, who should be in the mix to take over for Martin, and secured verbal commitments from that impressive three-player group for 2016. His recruiting success comes from the same tough love and sincerity that make him a successful position coach.
“He’s honest from the get-go,” Martin said. “In the meeting room, when you’re a recruit and when you’re in the O-line room, he does not change. Whether it’s good or whether he’s getting after you, he’s not changing, which is refreshing. Because he is who he is.”
Nelson, Elmer and McGlinchey are expected to star the 2016 season at the positions they held in 2015. Alex Bars, who fractured his ankle Oct. 17 against USC, is probably the early leader to take over for Stanley at left tackle so long as his recovery progresses well. Hoge and redshirt freshman Sam Mustipher are likely to compete at center.
There’s no shortage of talent at Hiestand’s disposal, even with the departures of two of the best offensive linemen he’s coached at Notre Dame. And he’s proven he can mold a successful offensive line, even without a Martin or Stanley on it.
“Definitely the standard he has for all of us,” Nelson said when asked what makes Hiestand a good coach. “He wants us to be the best that we can be, and as long as we want that too we’ll get there.”