CULVER, Ind. (AP) — This small town in northern Indiana annually produces two things when the calendar turns to August: Corn and Notre Dame offensive linemen.
Where sports icons Roger Penske and George Steinbrenner once marched as students, the Culver Academies are where Irish coach Brian Kelly witnessed assistant coach Harry Hiestand seed, nurture and harvest future NFL first-round linemen.
Following Notre Dame’s 10-3 season, during which the offensive line won the first Joe Moore Award, Hiestand left for the Chicago Bears. The left side of that unit went in the first round of the NFL Draft — guard Quenton Nelson sixth by the Indianapolis Colts and tackle Mike McGlinchey ninth by the San Francisco 49ers.
Now Jeff Quinn steps in as an assistant coach of the offensive line. He was Kelly’s offensive line coach at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Quinn inherits Hiestand’s silo, which is anything but empty. It includes a pair of senior co-captains in guard Alex Bars (6-foot-6¼, 315 pounds) and center Sam Mustipher (6-2½, 306). They’re mentioned for postseason honors and appear in 2019 mock drafts.
“We have serious potential to live up to what we did last year,” said Bars, who moves from right guard to replace Nelson. “It’s different with a new coach, for sure, but I think the guys are attacking it the same way as we did last year with Harry.”
The 55-year-old Quinn was rehired by Kelly in 2015 after he went 20-36 as head coach at Buffalo from 2010-14. He’s most recently been an offensive analyst for the Irish.
Kelly credits Quinn for building on Hiestand’s legacy.
“It’s a group that’s younger, no question, but there’s some really good veterans on it that bring it all together,” Kelly said. “There’s guys who know what they need to do, and obviously you pass the torch. They take that seriously — it’s a locked-in group and Jeff is a great guy to build that confidence.”
Mustipher, a two-year starter at center, agreed.
“That standard has always been there,” he said. “Coach Quinn is just looking to push us out to the limit.”
Replacing McGlinchey is junior Liam Eichenberg (6-6¼, 308). Bars’ replacement at right guard is junior Tommy Kraemer (6-5¾, 316), who in 2017 shared the right tackle spot now belonging to sophomore Robert Hainsey. Reserves like sophomore Josh Lugg and senior Trevor Ruhland can multitask, if needed.
“We started the spring (and) weren’t certain Liam (could) play left tackle and now we know he can play left tackle,” Kelly said. “But we’ve got to develop (Aaron) Banks as a guy who can go in there and do that job. Lugg and Kraemer have some flexibility to play inside and outside.”
Last season, the Irish ground game finished seventh in the nation, averaging 269.3 yards. Besides the loss of McGlinchey and Nelson, Josh Adams (1,430 yards, 6.94 yards per carry, nine touchdowns) left a year early to join the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent.
Quinn’s line will receive an early test when the Irish open under the lights on Sept. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium against a Michigan defense that finished third in total defense (271 yards per game) and 18th against the rush (120.9 yards). Junior All-America defensive tackle Rashan Gary had 5½ sacks and 11½ tackles for loss.
Notre Dame’s leading returning rusher is senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who ran for 803 yards and a team-high 14 TDs. The next rushers were Deon McIntosh (368 yards) and Dexter Williams (360). McIntosh was dismissed from the team following last season, while Williams is practicing but suspended indefinitely for unspecified team violations.
“(Williams is) physically fit, in great shape and he’s going to help our football team,” Kelly said. “We’ll see who ends up playing against Michigan, but he’s on our football team.”
Tony Jones Jr., who rushed for 232 yards and three TDs during an injury-plagued 2017 campaign, is sharing the running load with converted sophomores Jafar Armstrong (receiver) and Avery Davis (quarterback) and true freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.