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Hainsey, Hinish and Pittsburgh key Notre Dame’s return from 2016’s debacle

Notre Dame

Notre Dame Athletics

When Robert Hainsey signed with Notre Dame in February of 2017, little about the Irish resembled the team he committed to six months earlier. But the recruits he committed alongside remained as he signed.

They stuck through a 4-8 season. They hung around as Brian Kelly hired six new assistant coaches. They kept each other committed when cries for Kelly’s job rang louder than their phones did as National Signing Day approached.

A total of 15 recruits committed in the 2016 calendar year, 14 of them coming before the debacle of a season began, the 15th being four-star offensive lineman Aaron Banks in early December.

“We couldn’t be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day. “During a very difficult season, this group of 15 had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting, other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. …

“I think this class … is about the 15 that really stuck together, giving myself an opportunity to reconstitute our staff, put our staff together, get back out on the road after the dead period, and finish it out really strong.”

Getting back on the road after the dramatic turnover had major implications — the Irish added six commits in the week leading up to Signing Day. Among those were Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Jafar Armstrong, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jonathan Doerer.

“All these pieces moving together started with the 15, why they wanted to be part of Notre Dame,” Kelly said.

Of those original 15 commits, eight are still with the Irish, now seniors, all playing in each of the last three games — Brock Wright, Josh Lugg, Avery Davis, Drew White, Dillan Gibbons, Banks, Kurt Hinish and Hainsey, the latter two pictured above alongside Kelly before last week’s 12-7 win against Louisville.

“Everyone in that class that’s still around, we’re all very close and we’re all really happy to be together,” said Hainsey, a two-time captain and four-year starter at right tackle. “It’s just the type of guys you get when you get Notre Dame commits. You get guys that are committed to the school, to the program, to the people.”

As No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0, 3-0 ACC) heads out on the road for the first time, it serves as a homecoming for a particularly vital part of that recruiting class.

“Pittsburgh kind of came together under David Adams and Josh Lugg, and I think Kurt,” Kelly said in 2017. “All those guys were kind of together at one. They kind of ran in a pack. That helped.”

Injuries have since cut short Adams’ career, but his high school teammate Hinish carries forward the Central Catholic High School mantle as Hainsey does for Pittsburgh as well, while Lugg hailed from Wexford, Pa., just 15 miles outside of Pittsburgh proper. The contingent was geographically connected, but the strength of that pack mentality might have been the result of something greater.

“A lot of the people from there are blue-collar, hard-working people,” said defensive tackle Hinish, a two-year starter and four-year contributor. “It’s the kind of mindset that me and some of my teammates that are from Pittsburgh bring to this facility every day.

“We wear that blue-collar attitude on our sleeves, and that’s just the way we go about our day.”

Hinish competed against some of those now-teammates in high school and spoke highly of them, as well as of the class as a whole, all dynamics that helped hold the class together.

“We just had a special group of guys those years, and a lot of us came up on recruiting visits together,” he said. “It would have sucked if we lost some of our guys.”

But that also wouldn’t have come as a surprise, as the abysmal 2016 record was accompanied by a slew of changes to the Irish coaching staff.

Brian VanGorder’s firing a month into the 2016 season was the first in the line of those many changes. Mike Elko was brought in as defensive coordinator, while Chip Long took over the offense. That offseason also brought linebackers coach (and now defensive coordinator) Clark Lea, quarterbacks coach (and now offensive coordinator) Tommy Rees, receivers coach Del Alexander and special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian.

During that period of substitutions, Banks — who was the final member of the original 15 to commit — said he communicated mostly with then-offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

Heistand would later leave for the Bears, and of course, both coordinators would change again by the 2020 season. Again, little of Notre Dame nowadays resembles what Hainsey and Hinish joined with their 2017 signatures, though those changes have paled in comparison to the turmoil of 2016.

But now that turmoil is behind them and the Irish can partly thank that group of 15, specifically the yinzer portion of it, and their sights are set forward — first and foremost, on their trip to Pittsburgh, an unusual location for a core piece of this four-year revival to originate.

“I’m really excited to go home and play in front of my family and some friends,” Hinish said. “This game means everything to me.”

A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.

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