Leading from the middle

Back in the middle of Notre Dame’s offensive line, Nick Martin feels at home, even if he can’t explain why. The Irish captain hopes to lead a talented group while picking up some NFL advice along the way.

Where Nick Martin came from and where Nick Martin wants to go stood on the sidelines of the Loftus Center on Wednesday morning. As Notre Dame opened spring practice with Martin returned to the center position he vacated early last season, older brother Zack Martin and former teammate Chris Watt watched.

The former Irish linemen had relocated their off-season workouts for a few days to South Bend, Zack Martin driving up from Indianapolis and Watt heading over from Chicago. Zack Martin went in the first round to the Dallas Cowboys last year and developed into a Pro Bowler. Watt went in the third round to the San Diego Chargers as a guard, but took over the starting center job in November.

“You’re dumb if you’re not bouncing stuff off of them, not learning stuff from them,” Nick Martin said. “They’ve been there, been at the next level, having success.”

Now it’s the senior’s turn to emulate those former teammates who have the NFL road map.

Martin returned to center this off-season after shifting to guard last September when a hand injury and Notre Dame’s underwhelming start to the season up front forced a flip with Matt Hegarty. When Hegarty unexpectedly bolted Notre Dame this off-season for a shot to play center elsewhere, it meant Martin’s return to center came with added leadership responsibilities.

Martin not only has to pick up his old position, he has to help Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars too as they compete for the vacant left guard spot. With Hegarty, Notre Dame was set to return the most experienced line of the Brian Kelly era in career starts. Minus Hegarty, the line has a guard hole and a right tackle with one career start.

That doesn’t change Martin’s perspective on what kind of line Notre Dame returns under Harry Hiestand, entering his fourth season here.

“I think it’s an old line,” Martin said. “Ronnie Stanley coming back, started every game the last two years here, Steve Elmer in his third year, started a lot of games here and me. Mike McGlinchey started the bowl game but beyond that had the most reps out of anyone in practice. Obviously that guard spot you’ve got young guys, but they’re smart. Being surrounded by older guys being there, hopefully that eases that transition there.”

With his hand injury healed and the season-ending knee injury of two years ago long gone, Martin enters spring practice off a healthy off-season that helped him get over 300 pounds on Notre Dame’s official roster. He jumped six pounds to 301. Martin was the only senior lineman (fifth or fourth year) to make a weight jump since the season.

“It’s not that hard in the off-season, you’re working out and you’re eating a lot,” Martin said. “It’s nice to be able to eat a little bit. I don’t think (injuries) really did affect me. Injuries happen, you gotta play through them. You get that adrenaline going in games and you’re just rolling.”

Freshman Sam Mustipher, who took a red shirt last season, will back up Martin. Early enrollee Tristen Hoge slots as the No. 3 center. With Martin’s experience it makes spring practice as much about coaching up those underclassmen as refining his own game. It won’t be a surprise if Martin’s reps taper off as spring practice drags into April.

“Obviously I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I do think I can help Sam and Tristen as much as possible,” Martin said. “(Hoge) is a worker. He’s gonna do anything it takes, there’s no doubt about it.”

As for why Martin fits best at center, even Martin can’t explain it. Kelly described the shift as predicated on power at the guard position, where Nelson and Bars have more muscle than Hegarty. Getting more push was why Martin moved to guard last season, according to Kelly. With extra bulk at the position now, it’s freed Martin’s return to the middle.

“I never really played (center) until two springs ago,” Martin said. “Never thought I’d be able to snap the ball and block some one. I really like communicating, like being in the middle of things. I don’t know, I just enjoy it.”


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