It’s common knowledge that too many cooks can spoil a broth.
What’s less known, at least outside the secret society that is an offensive line room, is that five sets of eyes seeing a defense differently can spoil a play.
And from there a drive. And a game. And perhaps, a season.
Notre Dame’s 2016 offensive front wasn’t bereft of experience – but they weren’t at the point where they could function other than as individuals, either.
Fast forward to the present – in part because offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has wisely declined to discuss the recent past.
“I don’t want to talk about last season. I respectfully (decline) to answer that question,” said Hiestand when asked where his offensive line could improve after intermittent failings last fall. “But what we’re working on really hard is consistency, and that kind of answers your question. T
“This group we’re really focused on being on the same page at all times and seeing things through one set of eyes. (New England Patriots offensive line coach) Dante Scarnecchia was here a few years ago. That was one of the things in a meeting with our players he said to them, ‘You guys need to be committed to seeing it through one set of eyes.’
“When we look at a defense we should see the same thing. We (should) make the same adjustments. We don’t even have to speak. Just do it because our eyes are telling us to. That’s the growth we’re looking for and how we’re challenging them. I’ve seen more of that and we’re on the right track.”
Returning captain Mike McGlinchey enters his second season as the squad’s starter at left tackle. Newly minted captain Quenton Nelson his third at left guard. Both are back in South Bend despite reports of at least second round draft grades from the NFL.
“They’re committed to being great teammates, to improving,” said Hiestand of the prized pair. “They didn’t come back to not get better. They came back to get better.”
For McGlinchey, better means being more focused on his own game rather than a natural inclination to help those around him. The 6’8” team leader off the field was also its leader on the field – in false start penalties accrued.
McGlinchey committed an almost comical eight of them. (*At 12-0, it would have been comical, at 4-8…it was not.)
“It wasn’t the side flipping as much as playing around guys that hadn’t played a lot,” said Hiestand when asked if McGlinchey’s move from the right side in 2015 to the left last season was to blame for inconsistencies. “Having an incredible desire and determination to do well and to help others do well. Mike was always trying to get everything to work and he’d kind of forget about himself sometimes.
“Trying to do too much. Trying to make sure everyone else was squared away, and then, ‘Boom’ he pops up early (drawing a false start flag).
“You always (should) start (with yourself) and then work out,” Hiestand continued. “Go back to the same routine: ‘I’ve got the snap count, I’ve got the play, I’ve got the defense. Now I might make a call on a blitz or something like that.’
“Stay in the progression; don’t get ahead of the progression.”
Nelson’s personal charge for ’17 is to ensure there’s no repeat of the mistakes of the past.
“I wasn’t a captain last year, but for me, improving as a leader is to hold my teammates accountable and setting the example the best I can every day for what people should be doing.
“A lot of young guys can try to take the easy way out sometimes. You can calm them down, help them understand things and help (focus) them.”
THE REST OF THE WHOLE
Senior Sam Mustipher returns firmly entrenched in his starting center role while classmate Alex Bars moves back to guard from last year’s right tackle spot. Bars played left guard in 2015, starting twice for Nelson when the latter injured his ankle including a victory over USC. He’ll work on the right this fall.
“Alex can play both to be honest,” said Hiestand of Bars’ future as a tackle or guard. “I don’t know if I’d be able to say it’s his best position but he’s very comfortable at guard right now and that’s what’s best for us,” said Hiestand.
And despite a competent backup in the pivot, what’s best for Notre Dame is a returning starter at center.
“It starts in the off-season,” said Hiestand of Mustipher’s apparent ascent as a team leader. “Everybody sees what level each guy puts into it and Sam was (all in). He came back in better shape than he left. He showed up and attacked the off-season program and he’s carried that upbeat, attacking mentality. Not waiting for Q, not waiting for Mike.
“Everybody can kind of see his growth.”
One position remains in heated competition and will, barring two injuries, represent the only rookie starter among Hiestand’s chosen quintet.
“They’ve put themselves in a position of competition and that’s what they’re doing,” said Hiestand. “They’re both getting pretty equal reps and everyone is pretty used to them now. Alex is used to (playing alongside) both guys so we’re not going to force (a spring decision on the starter). We had Liam take a day off because he strained something. He got back in the flow today and we’ll get back to that same rotation.”
WHERE HE BELONGS
More than three decades as an assistant coach – just one spent as an offensive coordinator.
For a teacher that’s placed offensive lines in both the Super Bowl (2006 with the Chicago Bears) and national title game, Hiestand has surely had more opportunities for upward mobility than that afforded to him in 1993 when we worked in the Queen City.
“Tim Murphy made me offensive coordinator and I quickly got a splitting headache,” said Hiestand of his stint in charge of Cincinnati nearly a quarter century ago. (The Bearcats finished 8-3 with Hiestand guiding the offense. They were 3-8 the previous season.)
“I didn’t really think about it as much as always trying to do the best job at any job I had. At that point when he asked me to do it of course I was excited to do it. Then suddenly I’m in the press box and I didn’t even feel like I was part of the game. ‘Am I at the game?’
“It was a totally different feel. So experiencing that, it wasn’t like ‘Man, this is what I’ve always wanted.’ I actually missed some of the on the field interaction and the time it took away form the things I really enjoy which is seeing a guy have a good pass set, a good drive block or a double team. Seeing (a guy) grow.
“Those are the things that ended up being more important to me.”
That and ensuring a singular vision is shared among the five most important players on the field.