Notre Dame’s Kurt Hinish loves to be in the middle of things

The Irish nose tackle prides himself on his blue-collar work ethic from his Pittsburgh upbringing.

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College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

Kurt Hinish returns home to Pittsburgh with the Irish to face the Panthers on Saturday.

Tim Warner/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame football has been the beneficiary through the decades of a number of prominent Pittsburgh-area recruits, from Johnny Lujack in the 1940s to Terry Hanratty in the ’60s to Joe Montana in the ’70s.

Senior nose tackle Kurt Hinish is doing his part to carry on the legacy.

As the No. 3 Irish (4-0) head to Heinz Field for a game Saturday against unranked Pittsburgh, they will count once more on Hinish’s rugged play in the middle of their top-20 rushing defense.

Hinish, who is from the same high school — Pittsburgh Central Catholic — that produced Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, loves his job description.

‘‘Playing down the middle, I say, ‘You’re in the jungle,’ ’’ Hinish said. ‘‘If I’m having a good day in the jungle, if I’m holding my double-teams down, linebackers are flying across making plays and I’m getting out of my double-teams making plays.’’

A defensive end in high school, Hinish was shoved inside as a freshman in 2017. Listed now at 6-2 and 296 pounds, he immediately took to the chaos.

‘‘Not a lot of guys are cut out to go down and play in the middle,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s actually something I’ve been good at. I enjoy playing the middle. It’s not for everybody, but I enjoy it.’’

Making the best of an otherwise-miserable task is something Hinish learned from his father, Kurt Sr. A Pittsburgh construction worker who has spent the last seven years battling colon cancer, the elder Hinish would take his namesake along as a teenager to assist on those backbreaking workdays.

‘‘One day he made me shovel 14 tons of stone into a wheelbarrow,’’ Hinish recalled. ‘‘Rolled it into a back pit and dumped it. I did that all in one day. It was one of the worst days of my life.’’

Still, from the accompanying grin, you get the sense it was actually one of Hinish’s proudest days, too.

The same goes for those 8 a.m. optional lifts every Tuesday with Matt Balis, Notre Dame’s director of football performance. Hinish typically is the only Irish player who turns up for those 45 punishing minutes in the weight room.

‘‘It’s optional, and no one else goes,’’ Hinish said. ‘‘It’s brutal. I really enjoy it. It’s great.’’

Programs have been designed to help Hinish fortify his shoulders and hips, the joints that seem to take the most abuse at nose tackle.

Irish coach Brian Kelly mentioned this week that Hinish has ‘‘been banged up’’ this year. But Hinish, who still ranks second on the team with four tackles for loss, brushes aside any suggestion he has been playing hurt.

‘‘Oh, I’m great,’’ he said amid a string of 17 consecutive starts. ‘‘I feel fine.’’

Hinish’s favorite mantra is borrowed from the military.

‘‘When you’re in the Navy SEAL program, when you quit, you ring the bell,’’ Hinish said. ‘‘What I always say, in my head and to the guys around me, is we haven’t rung the bell yet. I tell myself this all the time.’’

Returning to Heinz Field, where he played three times during his high school career, carries special significance for Hinish. Even with all the restrictions associated with Notre Dame’s first road trip amid the pandemic, he will get a chance to play before his family and friends.

Older sister Kadin was a heptathlete at Slippery Rock University, where Kurt Sr. played football in the ’80s, and younger brother Donovan is a two-way lineman as a junior at Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

Hinish, who went by ‘‘Braeden’’ while in high school, also played with and against a number of players on Pittsburgh’s roster. While back home during quarantine, he played paintball with Panthers defensive backs Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford.

‘‘It means the world to me to go back home and play Pitt,’’ Hinish said. ‘‘I grew up watching Pitt.’’

It also will give Hinish another chance to show what it means to be a Pittsburgh guy.

‘‘A lot of the people from there are blue-collar, hard-working people,’’ Hinish said. ‘‘It’s like a bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work’ type of mentality every day. We carry that blue-collar attitude on our sleeve. That’s just the way we go about our day.’’

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