Captaincy Next Step In Hainsey’s Evolution

By Denise Skwarcan

Robert Hainsey may have finished high school in Florida, but there’s no mistaking his Steel City roots.

Just ask him what his go-to lunch spot is and he’s transported back to Pittsburgh. There’s a slight jump in his voice when the junior is prompted to identify the place offensive linemen can go to maintain their football figure.

“Obviously Primanti Bros … I love them,” said the 6-5, 295-pound Pittsburgh native referring to the iconic Steel City restaurant. “There’s a couple of different wing spots. There’s all kinds of places.”

But it’s not the only thing Hainsey is passionate about. Clearly, Notre Dame football and his O-line brothers are right at the top, as well — and it shows. His hard work earned Hainsey the trust of his coaches, who began playing him as a true freshman in 2017, and the respect of his teammates who voted him one of seven captains this year, continuing an eight-year tradition of at least one offensive lineman earning the distinction.

“It was such an honor to be chosen for that along with all the other guys,” Hainsey related. “I think together we can have a good impact on this team. These guys trust us. That’s why they chose us, and I intend to lead them to the best of my ability. It’s a pleasure to be in a room with guys like we have who care so much and work so hard. They make me want to work harder and be the best person I can be every day.”

The desire to focus on just being a good offensive lineman began as a freshman in high school, when he put all other sports aside. But the desire to take his game to the next level began in earnest not long thereafter, when Hainsey began looking for a place to spend his final two prep seasons — a place where he could really hone his skills.

Without an offensive line coach at his school, Hainsey considered transferring to a local private high school. But the thought of sitting out a year deterred him. Then he received a call about attending IMG Academy, a boarding school/training facility in Bradenton, Florida, where he eventually spent his junior and senior years.

“I thought that if I want to get better and get to this place that I want to be then I should do it,” Hainsey noted of his decision to move down south. “It was a pretty good adjustment. There’s a lot of kids on the campus doing the same thing so you can talk to them because they’re going through the same things.”

Not only did IMG prepare him for the rigors of college academic life, it also helped him flourish on the gridiron. As a senior, Hainsey helped the Ascenders to a No. 3 final national ranking after finishing 11-0 and outscoring its opponents 401-104.

“I think Robert’s progression was from a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint, and you just saw him get better and better,” said Kevin Wright, Hainsey’s coach at IMG. “With Robert you saw a physical transition, there was maturity and he developed into a tremendous leader within the team. … You just saw Robert develop as a complete person and not just as a football player.”

By that time, the offers started to pour in for Hainsey, who narrowed his choices to Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. The Irish came calling a little late in the process but Hainsey decided to visit the campus and easily became sold on the northern Indiana program. It probably didn’t hurt, either, that Wright was from Indiana and familiar with Notre Dame.

“When it came time to pick a school, I thought that was probably going to be the perfect place for a kid like him given who he is and what the program has traditionally been like,” Wright commented. “I think that after you adjust to the size and speed of the kids you see every day in practice, the regimen our kids go through (at IMG) almost mirrors what he had to go through at Notre Dame with regard to getting up early, breakfast, meetings, practice, lifting weights, then they showered and had class all afternoon and evening and then they come back for study table.”

“With all the schools, football was a big part of the decision,” Hainey added. “But Notre Dame also had the faith aspect which was really important to me and then the degree and connections I would gain after school would really make a huge difference in my future beyond football.”

Hainsey made the move back up north in January 2017 to become an early enrollee, and benefitted greatly from the experience. He spent spring practice working with and learning from guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, which evolved into a co-starting assignment that fall as a true freshman at right tackle with then-sophomore Tommy Kraemer.

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“(Enrolling early) gave me the opportunity to come here and play my freshman year which I don’t know if I would’ve had if I hadn’t,” Hainsey said. “(Splitting time) was definitely different. Rotating isn’t typical, but it was a great experience. I worked with the O-Line and Tommy and we made each other better. We each had strengths that kind of fit together. We used to joke that we were like one player. And playing as a true freshman was something special that I’ll remember for a while. I worked really hard to get there, and I think it worked out for the best.

Despite playing banged up for a part of the 2018 season, Hainsey became the sole right tackle and turned in one of the most consistent performances of any of Notre Dame’s offensive linemen. When Wright toured the Notre Dame campus this summer with his daughter, a prospective student, he was able to reunite with his former player and clearly saw how Hainsey had continued to improve.

“I think he’s evolved into everything I thought he could be” Wright stated. “He seems to maximize his physical abilities and he’s still got that blue-collar mentality, he was able to go in and play early and has played for a couple of offensive line coaches now and adapted both times. That shows his versatility and adaptability, and watching him work out when we were there this summer … he was one of the guys that was obviously a leader within the team and that’s something that I expected to happen. He got thrown into the fire a little earlier than he thought or maybe I thought, but from day one he’s been an integral part of that team and their success.”

If Hainsey stays for the 2020 campaign to use his final year of eligibility, he has the chance to become a rare two-time captain, following in the footsteps of offensive line brothers Nick and Zach Martin and McGlinchey. But he would also become something even more rare, something that even McGlinchey or Nelson didn’t achieve – a four-year starter. But just four games into this season, those thoughts are far off in the distance as Hainsey strives to make each day better than the next. And he hopes Notre Dame fans will stick with them through the end.

“Just keep with us,” Hainsey said. “We’re going to work really hard and prepare really hard for every game, and if we do that we’ll be right where we want to be at the end of the season.”

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