Asked at the conclusion of spring ball about the purported weaker side of his offensive front, the right side, Harry Hiestand offered:
“I don’t think the left side has the world licked, either.”
Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson man that still-in-progress left side, leaders of a front graded by the publication Pro Football Focus as the best in the nation. McGlinchey was listed as the top returning offensive lineman – at any position – entering 2016.
“In that offensive line room, we don’t listen to any kind of pre-season hype,” said McGlinchey. “Q and I don’t as well. But we know the expectations are there. We’re the guys that have been here the longest, played the most. It’s kind of like a passing of the torch. We understand what’s expected of us and we have to exceed those expectations.
“It’s something we look forward to and hopefully can grow and exceed those that are put on us.”
After six seasons of something along the lines of dreadful (2007), poor (2008-09), sub par (2010), or not yet contention-worthy (2011) offensive line play, the position has enjoyed a revival under head coach Brian Kelly and Hiestand, the latter of which began with the program in 2012 and leaned on a pair of future pros, Zack Martin and Chris Watt.
The pair gave way to Zack’s brother Nick and superstar Ronnie Stanley thereafter, and now McGlinchey and Nelson step to the fore.
In addition to being tasked with grading road disguised as opposing defenders, McGlinchey has earned a dual role: team leader.
“Mike McGlinchey has been an amazing leader and he kind of paves the way for all of us,” said junior quarterback DeShone Kizer who notably was asked a question about leadership from the quarterback position prior to his answer. “And Malik (Zaire) and I chime in when we’re supposed to.”
AMPLE ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Told of Hiestand’s blunt assertion that the left side doesn’t have it “licked” yet, either, McGlinchey didn’t hesitate.
“And we don’t. I think that’s our mentality,” he said. “Q and I both know we don’t have it down pat yet. That’s the beauty of our position: you might not ever get it down pat.”
“That’s something we harp on all the time: if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse. We know what we can do and what we have to improve on.”
Specific to McGlinchey, according to Kelly, would be a continued evolution in pass protection.
“He's played with great balance this year,” Kelly said. “Probably a little overextended at times last year. Showing great balance, staying on his feet, finishing off blocks.”
For McGlinchey, it’s about the unit as a whole. The search for 13 (14?) games of dominance rather than what proved to be a little less last fall.
“I think with our consistency is the biggest thing,” McGlinchey said in reference to an outstanding season from the offensive front in 2015. “Obviously we had spurts last year where we were absolutely dominant but we also had times where we didn’t do what we needed to do. Working to never be the guy that lets our team down. We preach that every day in our room and in our group. We’re not there yet.”
But they’re ahead of most, and for the fifth time in the last six seasons, Notre Dame’s left side will perform the unit’s heavy lifting.
“It’s a lot of fun playing with somebody like Q,” said McGlinchey of Nelson. “Combination blocks are a lot easier for me. We push each other every day. Get under each other’s skin as much as humanly possible because when you’re uncomfortable it makes you grow a little bit.
‘I feel like that we want to be the guys everything goes through and hinges on, because we want that responsibility, we’re ready for that challenge. We’ve worked out butts off for a very long time to be as good as we can be and we obviously have a lot of room to grow. I think Q and I are going to have a really fun year and hopefully we can do some special things up front.”