Hiestand adds to culture, hauls in four OL
Mike Monaco | Thursday, February 6, 2014
A little more than two years ago, Harry Hiestand was officially hired at Notre Dame.
The offensive line coach took over in January, months before the 2012 season.
At the time, Mike Golic Jr. was preparing for his fifth season in South Bend.
“He was so focused on coming in every day and doing whatever he could to help us be the best offensive line in the country,” Golic said of Hiestand. “He said that’s his goal from day one.”
Two years later, Hiestand has built a culture among the offensive linemen at Notre Dame. In 2013, the Irish allowed the second-fewest sacks (eight) in the nation. In 2012, Notre Dame averaged 4.9 yards per carry, the highest Irish average since 1996.
Hiestand’s influence and quest to produce the best line in the nation extends to recruiting, too. Last year’s No. 4 class in the country featured five offensive linemen, four of whom earned four-star ratings from ESPN. Four more linemen — including three ESPN four-stars — signed with Notre Dame on Wednesday (the Irish also have two verbal commitments from offensive linemen in the class of 2015).
Irish recruiting expert Mike Frank said the offensive line is the position group Notre Dame has best recruited in the past few years.
“I’ve followed this a long time and I can’t remember Notre Dame doing a better job of back-to-back classes filling in their offensive line with both a body for each position plus elite talent for each position,” said Frank, who runs the ESPN-affiliated Irish Sports Daily. “I think they’ve just really done an outstanding job with it.”
A long lull
But before these past two strong seasons — both in terms of recruiting and on-field production — Notre Dame had not attained the same level of success along the offensive line. In 2003, former Irish center Jeff Faine was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. But from 2004 onward, only seven Notre Dame offensive linemen have been drafted, with only one — Ryan Harris — chosen before the sixth round (Harris was a third-round pick in 2007).
The 2012 recruiting class consisted of two offensive linemen, and the 2011 and 2010 classes featured just one ESPN four-star apiece.
“One of the things that I think was pretty obvious during the mediocre years prior to the national championship run was that their offensive line just wasn’t physical,” Rivals national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said.
In the four seasons before Hiestand arrived, the Irish went a combined 29-22. Golic was there for those four seasons, and he played for three different offensive line coaches before Hiestand became his fourth.
John Latina, currently the assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Duke, recruited Golic to Notre Dame and coached him during his freshman season. The following year, however, Frank Verducci took over for Latina. Kelly was then hired to replace Charlie Weis the next season, in 2010, and Ed Warinner stepped in as the new offensive line coach, a position he held for two seasons before moving to Ohio State after the 2011 campaign.
“I was fortunate to work with a lot of great guys, but I think everyone will benefit from having a coach that’s been there three years now and has that foundation laid or how he wants things done,” Golic said.
Building a family
When Hiestand joined the Irish staff in 2012, he stressed continuity among the offensive linemen. He stressed family. He stressed togetherness.
“He came in and that was the biggest thing he preached is that, ‘We are going to do everything on and off the field together. We are going to be that one cohesive unit,’” Golic said. “So that when it came time to be on the field, you could be counted on [by] not only the rest of the team but by the guy next to you.
“That’s the biggest thing you really need to have going as an offensive line is that continuity and that level of comfort between all the guys.”
Hiestand had the linemen do everything together. They ate their meals together. They were together for meetings and walk-throughs. They stayed 30 or 40 minutes after practices for extra work. They watched game film together and talked through what they saw.
“When you get into game situations it makes it so much easier to talk and work those things out because you’ve already done that together,” Golic said.
And spending the countless and sometimes thankless hours together naturally forged a brotherhood and a confidence that not only the linemen could count on each other, but that the whole team could trust the men up front, Golic said.
“You want to be the group that when the game is on the line, put it on us. That’s the mentality that [Hiestand has] brought,” Golic said.
But the familial atmosphere cultivated by Hiestand and the benefits it produced weren’t limited to the field.
A shift in recruiting
Offensive lineman Sam Mustipher verbally committed to Notre Dame on April 15. Though the 6-foot-3, 294-pounder did not visit campus during the season, Mustipher made the trip from Maryland to South Bend in mid-December, when the Irish were in the midst of bowl practices, for the annual team banquet.
“The older guys looked out for all of the recruits when I was up there,” Mustipher said. “[Fellow 2014 offensive-line signees] Quenton Nelson, Jimmy Byrne and myself were with the offensive line for pretty much the entire weekend. They just looked out for us, cared for us.
“It’s a very tight-knit group,” Mustipher added. “A lot of the coaches there say it’s one of the most, if not the most, tight-knit group. And that was something that I really look forward to. The older guys take care of the younger guys.”
Those younger guys comprise the recent strong offensive-line classes, another testament to Hiestand’s handiwork. Though he won’t be confused with a stud recruiter who can bounce around the nation and poach top prospects who play other positions — “He’s not a … rock star recruiter,” Farrell said — Hiestand has repeatedly cast his line at a decided target and, more often than not, reeled in his catch.
“His job is to close on offensive linemen,” Farrell said. “Now he’s got a territory, of course, but he’s not considered one of those flashy recruiters that make their name going out and getting top kids. I think he’s very direct and I think that kids that want to go to Notre Dame love that.”
Frank added that if the goal is someone to send to Florida to recruit an elite running back, Hiestand likely wouldn’t be too effective.
“But mainly his job is, ‘Hey, just go out and find us the best linemen, the guys you really want. Get them here and coach them up,’” Frank said. “I’m going to guess Brian Kelly wouldn’t trade Harry Hiestand for hardly anybody in the country as an offensive line coach.”
Mustipher wouldn’t either.
“I feel like he’s the best offensive-line coach in the country,” Mustipher said. “The way coach Hiestand treats his players, the way he approaches the guys, the way he gets the best out of the guys day in and day out is something that’s unmatched that I’ve ever seen.”
And when it comes to casting his line and finding the guys Hiestand really wants, Farrell said the Irish have done a better job identifying the very tough, physical offensive linemen that he believed were lacking in the pre-2012 years.
The incoming group
Nelson, a five-star recruit and the No. 29 player in the nation according to Rivals, is the highest-rated (per Rivals) of the four offensive linemen in Notre Dame’s class of 2014. Kelly praised Nelson’s relentlessness on Wednesday, and Farrell said Nelson is definitely the jewel of the four linemen.
“I think he’s a guy that could be very, very special,” Farrell said. “I think he has the most tools of an offensive lineman coming in since [former Irish offensive lineman] Sam Young.”
Mustipher, Byrne and fellow offensive lineman signee Alex Bars round out this year’s unit, a group that has already had a jumpstart on the brotherhood building that has typified a Hiestand-coached position group.
“I’ve become close with all of them, especially that weekend we came up,” Mustipher said. “I was already close with Quenton, but that weekend we really bonded. Jimmy and I really bonded that weekend as well. Our families met each other and they talked for a long time.
“I went to the Under Armour [All-American Game] in Florida [in January] and I actually roomed with Alex there, so I spent a week with him.”
Couple those four with the five linemen from the recruiting class of 2013, and add all of them to the older returnees — many of whom received valuable experience in 2013 as injuries decimated the line — and the result is depth across the board, one of Kelly’s main takeaways from the overall class of 2014.
As of now, the Irish will enter spring ball with 15 scholarship offensive linemen, 15 players joining to form one corps under Hiestand.
“The sky is really the limit for that group,” Golic said. “There’s a ton of talent along there and they’ve got a great guy there to develop it.”