Man in the Middle

A calendar year removed from heart surgery, Irish junior Matt Hegarty will start at center in Notre Dame's regular season finale.

Though he competed in the spring and has played in every game this season as a member of Notre Dame's special teams, it's likely junior center Matt Hegarty will mark November 23, 2013 as the date he was officially "all the way back."

Twelve months prior, Hegarty suffered a stroke than truncated his 2012 season. Doctors found two small holes in his heart and after subsequent December surgery and months of rehabilitation, the Aztec, New Mexico product and former Scout.com four-star tackle prospect made it back to the football field.

But spring and August practice competition and blocking in the fall for punter/kicker Kyle Brindza paled in comparison to the emergent role he occupied Saturday vs. Brigham Young, one he'll maintain this week as a starter at No. 9 Stanford.

With classmate and 11-game starter Nick Martin lost for the season due to what head coach Brian Kelly called, "a significant knee injury," Notre Dame's main man in the pivot is Hegarty.

First converted from the offensive line's perimeter to its anchor position, Hegarty will be the unit's eighth different starter this season. The 2012 line featured the same starting quintet in each of the team's 13 games.

"It could be an absolute disaster," said Kelly of the still-cohesive offensive front. "Coach (Harry) Hiestand has done an incredible job of putting this together.

"I'll go back to their summer workouts where they stayed together as a unit during the summer and really worked hard together, and I think that unit mentality has really served us well. Matt Hegarty going in at center and really rotating both (junior) Conor Hanratty and (freshman) Steve Elmer at right guard, that says a lot about the unit and playing a lot of guys there and playing effectively."

Notre Dame rushed for 235 yards Saturday, its second-highest number of the season. Hegarty played more than three quarters in relief of Martin.

"I thought he did a pretty good job," said Kelly. "Certainly going in there first time against a 300-pound guy on his nose (Eathyn Manumaleuna), I mean, he did not go against a four-down (front) where he was uncovered.  He had somebody on his nose virtually the entire three quarters that he was in there, snapped the ball without any mistakes.  thought the big series for him was when we were backed up on our goal line, and did a very good job under those conditions, and I thought he held his own."

Stanford's defensive front will pose a major challenge for Hegarty and a relative line neophyte that aligns to his right in Hanratty (two career starts) or Elmer (three). The pair will rotate at right guard with Hanratty an emergency center option as well. Redshirt-freshman Mark Harrell will be the team's backup center for Saturday's contest. Harrell has yet to make his collegiate debut.

The Cardinal defense ranks third nationally against the run, 51st vs. the pass. They're the 12th best defense in terms of winning on third down, stopping foes nearly 68 percent of the time to date.

Kelly offered that fifth-year senior guard Chris Watt will also be prepared to snap in the event of injury for Saturday's game.


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