You won’t confuse Harry Hiestand for a man looking for greener pastures. The veteran offensive line coach, in his first season in South Bend, has no qualms being a position coach, a job that might seem like old hat for a respected assistant who has coached in a Super Bowl and spent the last three decades working in the trenches.
“As I’ve gone on in the years, I’ve found that what we do with the offensive line is what excites me,” Hiestand said. “It’s what brings me to work every day with a good attitude. An opportunity to work with those guys. It’s not to be a play caller or a head coach. That’s not really what motivates me everyday. What motivates me is seeing a group of guys, taking a group and trying to help them be the best that they can be as individuals and then put an offensive line together that can go out on the field and function and go out and win.”
Hiestand’s approach was music to the ears of the Irish offensive line, a group that rebuilt the right side and came together to be one of the most balanced offensive attacks in college football, averaging over 200 yards of offense on the ground and through the air this season.
While getting Mike Golic Jr. and Christian Lombard up to speed, and developing a second string with virtually no experience, Hiestand found one of his strongest supporters in his best player. Zack Martin, who decided to return for a fifth season after winning three straight lineman of the year awards for the Irish, paid Hiestand the ultimate compliment by returning for another year of tutelage.
“He’s everything I’ve ever wanted in an offensive line coach,” Martin said. “He pushes you on the field. He’s a technician. He’s taught us what it means to work, but off the field he’s somebody you can sit down and talk to and go have dinner with. The pride that he’s kind of instilled back in the offensive line here at Notre Dame, which hasn’t been here for a while, we started it and I want to finish it out next year.”
The return of Martin as the team’s left tackle means three veterans will anchor the line, with Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard all returning. While finding Braxston Cave’s replacement at center will be imperative, having one of the nation’s top left tackles certainly cushions the blow quite nicely.
Hiestand was effusive in his praise of Martin, one of the most underrated linemen in college football according to the line coach.
“I’m not really sure who makes those decisions,” Hiestand said of All-American honors. “I watch an awful lot of film, so does our coaching staff. We don’t see anybody out there better than him. He’ll get it next year, I guess.
“He does everything: power plays, runs inside zone, outside zone. He’s a physical presence on the left side in the running game and he’s an excellent pass protector. I’d love to see the guy that somebody thinks is better than him, because I haven’t seen him.”
To his credit, Martin wasn’t too worried about the snubs, though he did earn second team All-American honors from the Walter Camp team.
“I’d much rather be on an undefeated team playing for the national title,” Martin said. “It didn’t bother me at all.”
After spending the past two years with Ed Warinner, there’s been no secret that the entire line has gelled under Hiestand’s supervision, a key hire for Kelly after Warinner left to join Urban Meyer’s staff as offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator. And while the Irish ground game had taken steps forward in the first two years of Kelly’s tenure, Martin talked about the benefits of Hiestand’s hands-on philosophy, and how the communal play has helped the Irish succeed.
“So many people think that the offensive line is going out there and making one-on-one blocks,” Martin said. “But I’ve got to know what the right guard is doing. The ability to know what everyone is doing and playing together is a big thing we’ve been working on all year. We’ve gotten better, and we know that we haven’t played a complete game together.”
That opportunity to play a complete game is just less than three weeks away, against one of the most talented defenses in the country. But thanks to Hiestand, Martin and company are relishing the opportunity.
“The offensive line at Notre Dame the last how many years has been kind of the whipping boy of the team, so it’s time to change that,” Martin said. “I don’t think we could have gotten a better guy.”