Thursday night all eyes will be on Downtown Cleveland as the 2021 NFL Draft officially kicks-off round one with the Jacksonville Jaguars on the clock. Less than ten minutes from the draft site is Saint Ignatius High School, where top offensive lineman prospect Liam Eichenberg ’16 played his high school ball. Eichenberg continued to play at the Division I level for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, where in the 2020 season he was named to the First team All-ACC and was a Consensus All-American. As the draft begins Thursday night from Cleveland, the hometown kid hopes to hear his name called early by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Heading into the week of the draft, the anticipation is high for Eichenberg waiting to see which team chooses him. “For me, it’s more about not knowing where I’m going to be, Eichenberg says. “I’m looking forward to the draft, but it’s not about getting drafted; it’s about having a long career.” Eichenberg is a Cleveland native and will be drafted into the NFL on the shore of Lake Erie. “I’m going to be with my parents and grandparents in Cleveland,” says Eichenberg. “This is pretty awesome, hometown kid; hopefully, I’m drafted high.”
Since the end of the college football season for Notre Dame, Eichenberg has been training every step of the way, preparing for the draft. The draft process is different from past years due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, Eichenberg is making the most of his opportunities. “A lot of zoom calls,” he explains. “Each team has been allowed to meet with each player five times for an hour and I’m trying to convey myself as a player and a person through a screen.”
As talented as Eichenberg was throughout his collegiate career for the Fighting Irish, there was an opportunity to declare for the NFL Draft in 2020. “I thought about declaring. I submitted my grades to the NFL committee at the end of last year,” says Eichenberg. “I got my grades back, and I believe if I did leave, I would have gone on day two.” However, Eichenberg knew there was unfinished business at Notre Dame and wanted another chance at a National Championship. “Notre Dame, similar to Saint Ignatius, is a special place,” explains Eichenberg. “I wanted to come back and help the younger guys and win a National Championship.”
Eichenberg played under Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle ’69 from 2013 to 2016. He saw his first varsity action in his sophomore season playing guard against Michigan Brother Rice High School. The Wildcats fell at Wayne State University that day, 29-20. “I played left guard, and we lost that game as I recall.” says Eichenberg. “But a game that I remember is my last high school game vs. St. Edward, where we lost and missed the playoffs, and it sticks with me to this day.”
“I knew he was going to be a great size player,” says Kyle. “He was athletic and could move quickly at his size, but he had this quiet determination right away when he played varsity ball.”
Long-time Saint Ignatius Offensive Coordinator Nick Restifo Hon. ’19 was quick to mention Eichenberg’s unique ability as a sophomore. “His size and strength were unlike any at his age as a sophomore,” Restifo says. “He brought such a good foundation, and he fit right into the offensive line.”
Eichenberg’s talent was evident within the Saint Ignatius football program early. Colleges began to take notice.“By the spring of his sophomore year, he was receiving news that he would be receiving scholarships from Division I programs,” says Kyle. “He used that motivation to fit the image of a major Division I offensive lineman.”
As Eichenberg decided to continue his football career at Notre Dame, he was joined by once rival Shaun Crawford. Crawford was a member of the St. Edward football program. “Shaun and I talk about St. Ed’s vs. Saint Ignatius quite a bit,'' explains Eichenberg. “Shaun is a great guy. Back in high school, I wasn’t a fan of St. Eds, but Shaun is a great teammate and an even better guy.” Crawford, who plays defensive back, is a 2021 NFL Draft prospect as well.
There is a significant discrepancy between the number of high school football players who continue at the collegiate level as many cannot handle the elevated workload. “The biggest thing was time commitment,” explains Eichenberg. “From meetings to walk-throughs to everything else, you can’t afford to procrastinate.” Eichenberg says throughout his time at Notre Dame playing football was like a full-time job. He would finish class and head to the football facility at 1 p.m. and not leave until 9 p.m.
“It became pretty obvious that he was destined for greatness in football,” says Kyle. “His work ethic in the weight room was astonishing.”
In the Saint Ignatius community, many share their love of Notre Dame football. Fighting Irish fans will never forget the double-overtime match-up vs. the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers in the 2020 season. “That was the greatest game I have ever played in,” says Eichenberg. “I remember heading into O.T., and right after our first score, I knew we were going to win because they were tired and we inserted our will on them.” As the Fighting Irish forced a turnover on downs to secure a 47-40 win over Clemson, students flooded the field to celebrate. “It was awesome, having students in the stands,” explains Eichenberg “With them rushing the field, it felt like a dream.”
Eichenberg went viral during the 2020 season in a game against the Florida State Seminoles. He took an inadvertent shot to the eye mid-play in the second quarter. Eichenberg acquired a big swollen shiner with his left eye that took away his vision, but that didn’t stop the left tackle from reentering the game in the third quarter. “I couldn’t see out of either of my eyes,” explains Eichenberg. “My initial thought was I didn’t want to miss plays; I didn’t realize how swollen my eye was until I checked in the locker room.” The Fighting Irish held on for the 42-26 victory over the Seminoles. “For me, it was not letting my team down,” says Eichenberg. “I saw enough out of my right eye to help my team win.”
As Eichenberg prepared for the draft in his redshirt senior season with Notre Dame, the left tackle didn’t allow a single sack, protecting the blind side of quarterback Ian Book. “I wanted to take care of business and do my job,” mentions Eichenberg. “Having a Q.B. that could run helped, but I had that goal going into the season that I didn’t want to give up a sack.”
During his time at Notre Dame, Eichenberg matched-up against former teammate Dennis Grosel ’16. Grosel, a member of Boston College, was the Wildcat signal-caller for three seasons as Eichenberg protected his blindside. “I love playing Boston College because I got to see Dennis before and after the game,” says Eichenberg. “He had a hell of a career at BC, I have a lot of respect for Dennis and we stay in contact to this day.”
Eichenberg mentioned how unique that match-up was to him.“It was special because we understood how much work is put in for college football,” he says. “He was a walk-on who would start for BC and break a passing record and he is such a hard worker.”
Besides playing at historic Notre Dame Stadium, Eichenberg has suited up to play inside excellent facilities throughout the country. Yankee Stadium might take the cake. In 2018, the Shamrock Series witnessed Notre Dame take on Syracuse inside the famed baseball park in New York City. “That was my first year starting when we played at Yankee Stadium,” explains Eichenberg. “I turned to my guard for the traditional fist bump, and I looked up and saw the Yankee Stadium sign; it was such a special opportunity.”
Eichenberg has kept contact with many former offensive line teammates from Notre Dame who have gone on to play in the NFL. “Getting ready for the draft, I have contacted Quentin Nelson, Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars. Those are guys I lean on,” says Eichenberg. “It is something about Notre Dame’s culture and the relationships we built in the offensive line room.” Nelson is the starting guard for the Indianapolis Colts. McGlinchey is the starting tackle for the San Francisco 49ers. Bars is the starting guard for the Chicago Bears.
“It’s a great feeling and exciting because we love to see our guys succeed,” says Restifo. “We hope to mold these kids into Men for Others and Liam has those intangibles from being a student of Saint Ignatius and Notre Dame.”
Mock drafts are the talk of the football world as soon as college football season comes to an end. Every expert, pundit and Average Joe touts his own expectations of what will happen, but these are all merely guesses. “It is tough not looking at mock drafts,” explains Eichenberg. “I have seen a couple, but at the end of the day, the media doesn’t know what is going to happen. After the top five picks, anything can happen. I have a good chance of being selected higher than people think.”
“I’ve taken a look a few times at mock drafts, but no one knows,” says Kyle. “It is interesting to see how NFL teams evaluate because there are several prospects that are first-rounders that didn’t play in 2020. Liam played, went up against Clemson twice, played guys that will be in the draft this year. So the pros have plenty of films to evaluate on Liam because he played.”
Eichenberg heads into Thursday night with a goal in mind: to have a successful and lasting career. “It’s not about getting drafted to me; it’s about having a long career and getting to a team and help them win.”
After this weekend, Eichenberg will join two other alumni from Saint Ignatius High School currently in the NFL. Super Bowl champion Brian Hoyer ’04 is currently a free agent and Dre’Mont Jones ’15 is a defensive lineman for the Denver Broncos.
Round one begins tonight at 8 p.m. Eichenberg, his Alma Mater, and his city can’t wait to hear NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell say his name.