SOUTH BEND — The good thing about the new guy playing left tackle for Notre Dame is that he has experience against Rashan Gary. Yes, junior Liam Eichenberg, the rookie starter replacing Mike McGlinchey this season, knows Michigan’s future first round defensive lineman because he played against him in high school.
In 2014, Eichenberg was a junior at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio. That September, the football team took a bus more than 450 miles to play Paramus Catholic in New Jersey, a school that has produced notable talent such as former Michigan star and current Cleveland Browns safety Jabrill Peppers, and won three state championships since 2012. Adam Rini, Saint Ignatius offensive line coach and longtime Eichenberg mentor, remembers three things about the game: The temperature was something like 100 degrees, his team won 37-31 in double overtime, and Eichenberg vs. Gary was the “main event.”
“It was like two gladiators battling against each other every single play,” Rini said. “They were just going after each other. They lined up, Liam was at left tackle and Rashan was at right end, and those two just went at each other. It was fun to watch the film just seeing two excellent players try to better one another. And it’s funny because now, again it’s going to be Liam and Rashan going at each other in Week 1.”
No. 11 Notre Dame hosts No. 14 Michigan in what will be the main event of college football’s opening weekend Sept. 1.
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A concern surrounding the Fighting Irish pertains to the offensive line. The unit was recognized as the best in the country last season, winning the Joe Moore Award. It allowed a rushing attack to be the nation’s seventh-best, racking up more than 269 yards per game on 6.25 yards per carry. That offensive line lost its left side when McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson became the first two linemen in Notre Dame history to be selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft.
A few starters return. Alex Bars moves from right guard to left, Sam Mustipher assumes his role at center, Tommy Kraemer moves to right guard after starting 12 games at right tackle in 2017, and Robert Hainsey will be right tackle. That leaves the most important job.
“I think the guy people are worried about is Liam,” Rini saaid. “They moved Alex Bars next to him, who’s been through the battles. Sam is at center and he has been there a long time. They moved some guys around who have been there and done this before next to Liam.
“I know Liam is going to succeed and they’re not going to put him in a position to fail. They believe in him, I believe in him, and I know Liam believes in himself. He believes that this is where he belongs. I don’t see any reason why they can’t be the best offensive line in the country again.”
Eichenberg had a frustrating path to where he is now. He backed up McGlinchey last year as a redshirt sophomore and therefore got no meaningful game time reps. Before that, he had been competing the previous eight months for the starting right tackle spot versus Kraemer. As they entered fall camp last year, coaches wanted then-freshman Hainsey to compete with Kraemer instead, so Eichenberg was bumped to the left.
He admitted recently that bopping around the line was a bit demoralizing, especially mentally. He hit a slump. At one point he thought former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, now with the Chicago Bears, had favorites. What he ultimately came to grips with was that he wasn’t working hard enough.
“You go into fall camp and they say you’re rotating back and forth, left and right, and it sucked,” Eichenberg said. “That’s just how it was. I talked to coach Hiestand and my dad and I kind of just thought about it and was like you know what, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get better and when the spring comes around, I’m going to take the spot. The spot is going to be mine.”
The spot was left tackle and this past spring, he took it. Actually at first, the spot was Hainsey’s with Kraemer playing on the right side and Eichenberg behind him. Then coaches moved Hainsey to the right and Eichenberg to the left. That first practice in McGlinchey’s old position, Eichenberg was so happy.
“It was like riding a bike, I was so much more comfortable,” Eichenberg said. “It was a turning point where I set the standard and I can’t go below that now. My technique was getting better, I was strong, I was anchoring well.”
Those things have only improved over the past four months. Now it’s about fine tuning a smaller list of things like being more consistent with where his eyes and hands go and tightening his footwork.
Eichenberg is more confident, playing physical, and impressing his coaches. Last year, he gave up a lot of ground — he was also closer to 290 lbs. and is now 308 — so he got with strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis in the offseason to identify areas where he was weak. Balis has him working on his speed — moving weights faster, more reps on speed squats — so he can be more explosive out of his stance, which will help in run blocking. These things also help with balance, which is a key factor when facing a disruptive player like Gary, who had 67 tackles, 12 for loss, and six sacks last year as a sophomore.
“The biggest thing is balance in weight distribution and his run and pass fits,” said offensive line coach Jeff Quinn. “Making sure that you’re not leaning too much out or leaning too much in. You have to have a great balanced body position at all times because (Gary is) a very strong, powerful guy and they’re suddenly taking those quick escape moves.”
Quinn says Eichenberg “hasn’t had a bad day” of practice yet.
“He’s moving so much faster, so much more decisive, really bringing a big physicality to that group — and it’s a physical group,” added offensive coordinator Chip Long. “His love and passion for contact has upped the ante in that room and that’s one thing that I’ve seen. He’s a great presence in our huddles, just excited to be out there playing.
“He’s an O-lineman, you pay your dues, but this is his time. People say (McGlinchey and Nelson were) a huge loss, but we have some pretty good guys behind them and it’s their time to go out there, make their mistakes, learn from it and keep getting better and better.”
Long still wants to see more work in pass protection, blitz pickups and overall communication and being confident in making calls as the Michigan game gets closer. But he believes Eichenberg is “a talented young man and a hard worker and is going to be a big-time player here.”
Notre Dame’s left tackle position has a strong first-round pick lineage in the Brian Kelly era: There was Dallas Cowboys All Pro guard Zack Martin (2010-13), who recently signed a record-breaking six-year extension to make him the highest-paid guard in NFL history; Baltimore Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley (2014-15); and McGlinchey (2016-17).
Eichenberg, who keeps in touch with McGlinchey and Nelson through texting and FaceTime, wants to keep the streak going.
“I can’t explain how lucky I was, the position I was placed in,” he said. “I have to hold the standard, I have to play to the level that I’m capable of and as of right now I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on this year and beating Michigan. Helping our team win a national championship, the Joe Moore Award,because that’s what they did. They didn’t care about what could happen in the future. If I stick with that, hopefully other things will follow.”
The last Eichenberg-Gary matchup was four years ago and there’s no question that the 6-6, 308-pound offensive lineman and the 6-5, 287-pound defensive linemen are bigger, stronger and more powerful now. Eichenberg recently told Long about his experience, but he caught the coach on a bad day. Long wasn’t interested in seeing film, nor did he have time to chat about it.
“We’re not in high school anymore,” Long said, smiling.
Eichenberg has come a long way since then.
Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Laken Litman on Twitter and Instagram: @lakenlitman.