SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before every snap in practice, every snap in games, every snap in walk-throughs, the same thing happens. Quenton Nelson comes to the line of scrimmage, gathers himself for an instant before getting into a stance and extends his left fist. Two feet away, Mike McGlinchey extends his right fist.
The fists collide, and the two Notre Dame offensive linemen become one. They coalesce into a single, surging mass of power – a combined 650 pounds and more than 13 feet of synchronized, solar-eclipsing blocking prowess. They are the best part of the best line in college football, paving the way for a running game that leads the nation at 7.04 yards per carry. Running back Josh Adams deserves credit for making himself a prominent Heisman Trophy candidate, but so do the guys opening the holes – especially on the left side of the Notre Dame line.
The 6-foot-5, 335-pound Nelson is without peer at guard, and almost assuredly will be the first player taken in the 2018 NFL draft at that position. It’s been 41 years since a Notre Dame player won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best lineman – the program’s longest dry spell of all the major awards – and Nelson may well end that drought. He is astute and athletic, but mostly he is powerful and nasty – a mauler who loves exerting his will upon an opponent.
“My favorite player in college football,” said ESPN analyst Cole Cubelic, a former offensive lineman at Auburn whose blocking clips have become appointment viewing on Twitter. “[He] has a real nasty demeanor. He also enjoys the game. You see him shoving other linemen 10-20 yards downfield on a big play. He loves it. The physicality comes naturally to him.”
The 6-8¼, 315-pound McGlinchey is the rock upon which Brian Kelly rebuilt what was a floundering Fighting Irish program. He is a two-year team captain with a penchant for doing and saying the right thing, a leader and a winner – and he happens to be a hellacious lineman and potential high draft pick in his own right.
“Best left side in college football,” Cubelic said. “Best tackle-guard combo as well. Fun to watch. They pack a mean punch.”
They pack a mean punch – and yet they have ritually begun every play together for three years with something far more gentle than that. They start with an almost tender touching of the fists.
Theirs is a brotherhood built upon fist bumps.
Ask McGlinchey how many times he’s repeated that small gesture of solidarity, reaching out to receive Nelson’s fist bump, and he estimates 10,000. Nelson starts doing some actual math in his head – 100 snaps a practice, 80 snaps a game, year after year after year – and realizes that it’s an impossible task.
The number doesn’t matter. The unity behind it does.
“Anytime you do something together as often as they’ve done it, you start to be like brothers,” Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “You start to know what the other guy is going to say and do, even before they do it.
“There’s no better guard than Q. He brings incredible physical toughness and attitude, and that’s a big ingredient for line play. But he’s also a leader and a problem solver. He’s going to coach the other guys.
“I think there is no better left tackle in college football than Mike. Great leader. Some people talk and you kind of wish they wouldn’t. Others talk and you think, ‘That’s awesome.’ That’s Mike.”
The football brothers have plenty of actual siblings. A fifth-year senior with a bachelor’s degree already earned, McGlinchey is the oldest of six and has the dutiful and responsible air of an oldest child. If anyone on this surprising 8-1 Notre Dame squad can be considered the team spokesman, it would be him. The Philadelphia native is front and center on the cover of the 2017 Irish media guide.
Directly to McGlinchey’s right on the media guide cover – always to his right, it seems – is Nelson. The redshirt junior from Red Bank, New Jersey, is a quieter guy. He’s also the slightly pampered youngest of four.
“I get what I want,” Nelson said, with a sheepish grin.
“I didn’t,” McGlinchey responded, noting that his youngest brother is 10 years old.
They came up within the game differently as well. McGlinchey played every position but defensive back at Penn Charter High School, including quarterback. (Nelson vouches for his arm.) He was primarily a tight end and basketball player who transitioned to full-time offensive tackle in college. Nelson was pretty much a lineman from birth, a big kid who was encouraged to bring the pain on the football field.
“My dad always was telling me there are a lot of big guys who don’t play anywhere because they’re soft,” Nelson said. “I remember when I was younger, I was pancaking guys and picking them up after, and my Pop Warner coach was like, ‘What are you doing? Step over them after you pancake them.’ So ever since then that’s what I do – step over them and walk back to the huddle.”
Nelson was 11 at the time he learned that lesson. He’s stepped over a lot of bodies since.
McGlinchey wears a rubber autism bracelet around his right wrist, in support of his 13-year-old brother, Jimmy. A perfectionist, McGlinchey can be his own worst critic if he misses a key block or has a bad game. But Jimmy has a way of putting the pressure of big-time football in its proper perspective.
“He’s the best,” McGlinchey said. “Such a lighthearted, light-spirited kid. He’s the spirit of our family. If you see him after a game, everything else goes away.”
The football brothers first became acquainted at a Notre Dame summer camp. Later, McGlinchey was the host on Nelson’s recruiting visit – he came in for the USC game, which was played at night, and the visit fizzled. McGlinchey was a freshman himself, not yet aware of the campus social scene, so they didn’t do much.
But Nelson already was in the bag anyway – he had committed to the Irish five months earlier, the highest-rated player in Notre Dame’s signing class of 2014. Eventually both linemen made their way into the starting lineup – McGlinchey for the bowl game that ended the 2014 season, and both of them for the season opener in 2015.
Ten thousand fist bumps were to follow.
The ritual touching of fists actually grew from a seed planted by Hiestand, a 58-year-old who has devoted his football career to the craft of line play. In the movie version of his life, John Goodman would play Hiestand – although Hiestand is shorter, which is probably why he wound up a small-college lineman.
Hiestand has some Yoda-style wisdom in him, right down to a unique lingual characteristic – he ends many of his sentences with an upward inflection. He’s not quite asking a question, but perhaps checking to make sure you’re following his train of thought. He’s the blocker, and you follow him to daylight.
This is Hiestand’s 36th season coaching the sport, and except for two years in the 1980s working with tight ends, the interior line is where he’s spent all his time. And where the fist bumps were born.
Hiestand showed his Irish linemen a picture from when he coached the Chicago Bears’ offensive line, and Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was simultaneously bumping the fists of the guards to his left and right.
So the entire Fighting Irish starting line of McGlinchey, Nelson, center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars and right tackle Tommy Kraemer co-opted the idea. But the left side has been doing it longest – the showdown Saturday against No. 8 Miami will be McGlinchey’s 36th Notre Dame start, and Nelson’s 33rd. When they bump fists, the orchestrated violence will soon follow.
“We kind of lock ourselves in,” McGlinchey said. “We’re connected, we’re looking at things through one set of eyes.”
The “one set of eyes” phrase is a recurring one with the Irish linemen. That also comes from Hiestand, who got it from former New England Patriots line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Hiestand loves his phrases and sayings – the whiteboard in the Notre Dame offensive line meeting room is two-thirds covered this week with calls and schemes for the Miami game, but the right third could be considered the Lineman Philosophy Corner.
Actually, Philosophy Corner isn’t quite right. That connotes something airy and ethereal, and linemen are rooted in the terra firma of technique and work ethic. Especially Hiestand’s linemen. The credos are rooted in common sense and best practice: Keep your hands in and your head up; do it right or do it again.
There are quotes on the board from Scarnecchia and Chuck Noll. There is a book on the whiteboard railing written by Dan Radakovich, a nomadic pro and college assistant who made an impact on Hiestand. There are pictures of former players Hiestand coached, including several Irish linemen who became high NFL draft picks – Zach Martin, Nick Martin, Chris Watt, Ronnie Stanley.
And Philosophy Corner is flush with mentions of Joe Moore, the definitive offensive line coach of the 1980s and 90s at Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Moore was a Yinzer, a Pittsburgh guy who coached Kirk Ferentz in high school and went on to coach the offensive lines of two national champions: Pitt in 1976 and Notre Dame in 1988. And in later years he became a mentor to Hiestand.
One of the newest awards in college football is the Joe Moore Award. Fittingly, it is given for line play – but to an entire offensive line, not just one individual. Which is pretty much the way it should be, given the collaborative nature of blocking and the difficulty in quantifying individual performance.
Aside from a College Football Playoff berth and a chance at the national championship, no football accomplishment would likely please Harry Hiestand more than seeing his unit win the Joe Moore Award. And that in turn would please Nelson and McGlinchey, whose fondness for their position coach is palpable.
That award will be presented Dec. 8. But there are many more fists to bump before then, starting Saturday against Miami. And there is a good chance Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, the formidable building blocks of Notre Dame’s football renaissance, will keep bumping and blocking in unison all the way into January.