Harry Hiestand will make the decision on Notre Dame’s next left guard by watching.
For now, he likes what he’s hearing.
Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson enrolled as friends last summer and took similar beatings while wearing red shirts last fall, although Bars missed some of the season while recovering from a wrist injury. Now they’re two former national recruits competing for one opening on the Irish line.
“They actually root for each other,” Hiestand said. “Alex is up there in pass rush, Quenton’s yelling, ‘He’s wide, he’s wide!’ I love that. That’s what we want. We’re gonna compete our butts off and in the end we’re gonna play the best players, they understand that.”
The winner will start within perhaps Brian Kelly’s biggest offensive line, stuck between fifth-year senior Nick Martin and future first-round pick Ronnie Stanley. Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey round out a group that wants to build on the run-first game plan of the Music City Bowl.
Preparations for that game were when Hiestand realized the caliber of competition he’d have between Bars and Nelson this spring, although that assumed Matt Hegarty would be part of it too. But considering Hegarty moved to center last season because he lacked the strength for guard, it’s hard to imagine him holding off the rising sophomores.
“They’re both outstanding players,” McGlinchey said. “Both really smart football kids, football tough and have a lot of ability. We’re excited to see where they’re going. The two of them are just outstanding.”
Hiestand said Nelson and Bars rotate days with the first-team to keep the competition even, although Bars has taken a few reps at tackle for Stanley. While Kelly said he doesn’t want to traditionally cross-train Bars this spring because it would limit his ability to win the guard job, Hiestand believes Bars could play tackle long term.
Asked if Bars would be Notre Dame’s first tackle off the bench should Nelson win the guard job, Hiestand said Hunter Bivin would be in the conversation too. That means the backup among Bars and Nelson could be Notre Dame’s top line reserve at multiple positions.
For Bars, his push for time didn’t start until mid-season after he enrolled carrying a nagging wrist injury. When the Irish jumped into bowl prep, Kelly singled out the Irish legacy as coming for someone’s starting job this spring.
“He had very little work and then he gets healthy near the end and goes in bowl practices, functions, makes blocks, we saw his athletic ability,” Hiestand said. “Also saw a guy who’s real smart, in meeting rooms paying attention and learning. He was getting mental reps. He went in there and really acted like he knew what was going on, which was pretty impressive. He stood out because he was able to step up in that situation with very little prep for it.”
Nelson had a healthy freshman season and even took first-team reps in training camp at right tackle before sliding into the background. His move to guard doesn’t represent a surprise considering he’s built like a bigger Chris Watt, who returned to watch Notre Dame’s first week of spring practice.
During last weekend’s open practice, Nelson put early enrollee Jerry Tillery on his back.
“Quenton is bigger, thicker, more of a brawler type,” Hiestand said. “Alex is a little more technique conscious. They both have tremendous will to be good and tremendous work ethic to get these fundamentals down. They have different body types, but they’re very similar.”
By the end of spring they could be different: starter and backup.
But even that figures to be a temporary distinction for the pair with a combined eight years of eligibility remaining. At the rate Nelson and Bars seem to be making progress, whichever one gets beat out this year could win a different starting job next spring.
“Those guys are playing their hearts out right now, they’re just going as hard as they can,” Stanley said. “I wouldn’t pick one over the other right now.”