James Stone did not expect to start as a true freshman in 2010. He certainly did not anticipate two other true freshmen joining him on the starting Tennessee offensive line at one point during the 6-7 season. But it’s the guidance received, Stone said, from current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand that prepared the rookies for action.
Hiestand coached six of the 50 offensive linemen that were invited to the NFL Combine.
Hiestand, then the offensive line coach for the Vols, has received widespread praise for his work during a two-year stint with the Irish. It’s hardly a new development for the 30-year coaching veteran who has spent time in the NFL, SEC and Big Ten during his career. Notre Dame sent two offensive linemen — tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt — to the NFL Combine last weekend as part of a staggering six players invited to the event that had been coached by Hiestand at one point.
Stone, a four-year starter at center with the Volunteers, traveled to Indianapolis with tackle Ja’Wuan James, guard Zach Fulton and tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. Each received at least one year of tutelage under Hiestand during the early stages of their collegiate development and praise the Irish coach for laying the groundwork for their eventual professional careers.
“I feel like Harry Hiestand was instrumental in the development for all of us because he was our first coach when we were true freshmen,” Stone said at the NFL Combine. “Most of us had to play as true freshmen and I feel like he was instrumental in trying to get us prepared and letting us know the expectations we needed.”
Stone, James and Fulton combined for 26 starts along the 2010 offensive line and helped the program earn a bid to the Music City Bowl in head coach Derek Dooley’s first year when injuries could have led to a disastrous finish in the SEC.
“I felt [Hiestand] was great because he was very straightforward,” Stone said. “He really let you know how he felt about what you did. He gave a lot of guidance and a lot of one-on-one meetings with Coach Hiestand where he was just trying to help me become a better player, not just on the field but with my film habits, teaching me how to study film and teaching me how to learn about defenses and things of that nature.”
James said he and the five other linemen — six of the 50 offensive linemen invited to the NFL Combine had been coached by Hiestand at one point — enjoyed a conversation together about the coaching habits of their former mentor and expressed appreciation for his role in their future NFL payday.
“He’s a great coach and did a great job developing us our freshman and sophomore year,” James said. “We took a lot of what we learned from him and carried it on.”
Watt, a projected third-round pick, complimented Hiestand’s teaching methods. He said the coach invited players like former Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz and coaches across the industry — former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Dan Radakovich spent 90 minutes with the Irish offensive linemen last spring — to instill the fundamentals of blocking.
Four offensive linemen from Hiestand’s stint at Tennessee participated in the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
“The biggest message [Hiestand] would give is believing,” Watt said. “If it’s a coach or a player he brings in, there’s always a positive message we take in.”
Hiestand’s success in the profession also extends to the recruiting trail, where Notre Dame has reeled in a number of top recruits in recent years thanks in large part to the prospect of playing for the 30-year coaching veteran. The Irish already have a head start on the line in the 2015 recruiting class, with verbal commitments from Pocatello, Idaho, four-star center Tristen Hoge and Shreveport, La., tackle Jerry Tillery.
Regardless of which players cross paths with Hiestand in the future, Watt said they can expect to reap the benefits.
“He’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me as an offensive linemen and for our group at Notre Dame,” he said. “You can tell he’s a guy that brings the passion to the room every day when he comes in, a guy that you want to work for and play for.”