Notre Dame assistant Harry Hiestand has pretty much seen it all after 29 years of coaching. Every new stop includes a period of time where he and his players have to feel one another out. When the offensive line coach/running game coordinator came to Notre Dame via Tennessee back in January, he got to work developing relationships while implementing new styles and techniques.
On Thursday, he spoke with Blue & Gold Illustrated about how everything is coming along on the line, which head coach Brian Kelly identified as one of the team’s biggest strengths.
BGI: What were the biggest differences you noticed when these guys began fall camp?
Hiestand: “We’ve talked about how hard they’ve worked and you could see it (first day of camp). I saw them and was like, ‘whoa.’ You could see the difference. They had an excellent summer lifting weights, but also staying in condition so they could add some weight and still have the ability to move and not just be stuck in the ground.”
BGI: Many folks believed Nick Martin (sophomore) would push his way into the starting rotation this year at right guard, but it appears as if fifth-year senior Mike Golic held him off. What’s going on at that position?
Hiestand: “Well, Mike played center all spring. They definitely came into camp both with an opportunity. It’s still that way. Mike has been very steady and consistent and is learning how to play guard after spending all 15 days in the spring and part of last season playing center. He’s going through his process to be a consistent guard and he’s making good strides. Nick is working very, very hard. A redshirt freshman … not quite as consistent, but really doing some good things for us.”
BGI: Is Nick Martin the type of player that could potentially help you down the road at all five positions?
Hiestand: “Yeah, he’s a pretty flexible guy. He has some size and length to be able to play tackle, but he can bend his knees and he’s a good enough athlete to get underneath people at guard, which is always the tough transition. He has shown he can do that.”
BGI: Earlier in the day Coach Kelly said he believed both lines were two of the strongest units for the Irish heading into 2012. What makes you confident in the O-line?
Hiestand: “Well, we’ll see. Time will tell. Usually you can measure things by their work ethic, by their detail, by how much passion and how much they care about doing their job, getting people blocked and playing physical football, and doing what Coach Kelly, Coach Martin and myself ask of them. We’re making good, steady progress there. We feel good about the direction we’re going, but we need to continue to grow there. This group has to continue to gel even more. We’re making progress, but we still have work to do to play totally together as a group of five guys.
“We have excellent leadership. We have older guys that have played, that play with enthusiasm and play hard. That’s the way Coach Kelly teaches the players here. He expects and effort and enthusiasm and an energy to uplift the people around them. It has been something that has been constantly preached, so they naturally have gravitated that way. They are that type of kid, too. So it’s a nice combination.”
BGI: The players have all said there has been more of an emphasis on zone blocking once you arrived. Will that be the primary scheme this season?
Hiestand: “In football you have gap, zone and man; you have three general concepts. We incorporate in our system here all three of those. We’ll major a little bit more in the zone and the gap areas.”
BGI: How would you rate center Braxston Cave’s performance so far after he missed so much time with the foot injury?
Hiestand: “I was here in January, so from January on you get a feel for people. You could tell that No. 1: Braxston Cave cares about Notre Dame football. He wants Notre Dame to win, and he’s going to do everything in his heart and soul to help Notre Dame win. Right there, you’ve got a chance. As a coach, when a player cares that much, those are the fun guys to coach. We’re working through the process of being out for a long period of time, and he has been making steady progress, which is really encouraging. Each day he is cleaning up little parts of his game. That’s why you have to practice — you get a little bit out of whack. He sat down for a long time.”
BGI: All the guys with which I’ve spoken all seem to really respect you and your ideas. Not only that, they seem to be comfortable enough to give you a hard time. Do you feel like you’ve been able to form good relationships with them?
Hiestand: “For players and coaches it’s about respect. Only time, and working together, and working through problems when things aren’t going so good, that’s when you build a relationship with anybody. I think I can say all I need to say, and they can say all they need to say, but the bottom line, as we go through this is, are we in this together? Are we looking for solutions? Are we worried about pointing fingers or complaining about something? Are we solution oriented? Are we trying to help Notre Dame win in everything we do as a coach or player?