A discussion regarding Notre Dame’s offensive line over the bulk of the last five seasons calls to mind a particularly poignant practice field moment in the high school football classic film, Remember the Titans:
“This is left side!”
“Left side!” “Strong side!”
Because beginning with Zack Martin and Chris Watt (2011-2013) and again last fall with Ronnie Stanley and Quenton Nelson, the left side of the Irish offensive front has indeed served as the definitive team strength.
That appears to be the case again heading into 2016 when Nelson will team with burgeoning team leader Mike McGlinchey, the latter moving from right to left in Stanley’s stead.
While the vast potential of that 640 pounds of projected pain has Irish fans atwitter, you can instead color offensive line coach Harry Hiestand less than impressed.
“I don’t know, I don’t think either side’s got the world licked to be honest with you,” said Hiestand of the widely held belief that the left side is clearly superior to its counterparts on the right. “We’re in the middle of spring ball. We gotta get better. We know we have the two most experienced guys playing over there so if it’s just the experience, I would say that’s true.
“But it’s a work in progress. I wouldn’t say there’s a big drop-off, I think it’s all gotta get better. But it will come in time and that’s who you have so that’s who you coach and those guys, they’ll make up ground because they wanna do it.”
RIGHTING THE SHIP
McGlinchey’s move from right to left coupled with the unexpected retirement of senior-to-be Steve Elmer left a massive void for Hiestand & Co, to fill. Presently and likely into the fall, it appears a “three-to-make-two” arrangement will suffice, with seniors Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern plus junior Alex Bars filling out right guard and right tackle, respectively.
“It’s been a process to get Alex back off that broken ankle, so we’ve had to progress him in without overloading him,” said Hiestand. “I really like where he is now. We’ve been working Hunter at both tackle and guard. Colin was out for about five practices which slowed us down a little bit.
“Alex has settled in (at tackle), Colin and Hunter are both competing hard for that guard spot with Hunter also competing at tackle. So we kind of have three guys for those two spots.”
Bivin worked both of the last two seasons at left tackle behind Ronnie Stanley, the collegiate playing time equivalent of backing up Tom Brady in New England. The practice reps nonetheless helped.
“He’s very comfortable there, that’s why we’ve kept him on the right this whole spring, to get him used to playing that,” said Hiestand of Bivin’s present and future positions. “I think there are some things he’s a little more comfortable doing in close quarters. Now with Colin back it gives us some flexibility. I like what (Bivin) has done so far. He’s a big, strong kid that seems pretty comfortable there. He’s done well in two practices.”
And Bars appears set at right tackle after a 2015 season spent at left guard.
“I think for what we need for our team, he definitely needs to play tackle,” said Hiestand. “We need another guy that can play tackle so he’s being pushed in that role right now particularly in this last week-and-a-half of practice, but he’s a very good guard, too. He’s a very flexible guy.
“But we have to have guys that can protect on the edge at tackle when the game comes down to that. Many guys can do it on first and second down, it’s third-down, obvious pass situations, do you have a guy with enough range out there to cover that edge? That’s where Colin is a little bit limited; he’s probably more of a guard. But Alex has to fill that for us.”
THE BLIND SIDE
McGlinchey’s move to the oft-referenced “blind side” has nothing to do with Notre Dame’s ongoing quarterback competition between righty DeShone Kizer and lefty Malik Zaire, but rather the defensive athletes the Irish expect to face.
“People (defenses) like to put their best pass rusher to the backside, most quarterbacks are right-handed quarterbacks, but you see probably the best athlete over there,” said Hiestand of the right defensive end/pass rushing linebacker. “The guy that can put the pressure on the quarterback the most as you look at defenses. So the natural thing is to put your best pass blocker on the left side.”
Hiestand responds by putting his five best players on the field, and recruits talent to that end.
Translation: tackles first.
“You’ve got to have enough tackles that if the game is on the line they have to protect the edge,” he said of his position group’s overall makeup. “You have to have a chance to win the game, if you can’t do that, that’s going to be a problem. We worked really hard, we have Alex there (right tackle)…we’ve got Mike (left tackle), so we feel like we’ve got good reps at tackle, and then we try to make sure we find our best combination after.”
For the bulk of his first four seasons in South Bend, Hiestand has succeeded to that end, with the left side leading the way.