The injury that truly sidetracked Nick Martin last season didn’t happen last season.
For all the message board analysis of the ligament tears in his thumb, what set Martin back most during his senior year were the aftereffects of the severe knee injury suffered against BYU a season prior. After getting rolled up in November, Martin was limited that next spring and played weight room catch-up all off-season.
So while that thumb injury came to light about the same time Martin moved from center to guard, the lack of base power was probably the bigger issue. Now Martin is back at center, which seems to be his natural position even if the fifth-year senior can’t exactly explain why.
Martin enters his final season with 24 career starts on his resume and a full off-season of conditioning at his back. That’s reason to believe he could follow his brother into the NFL.
Martin starts all 13 games and looks good doing it while helping Malik Zaire set protections to keep the first-year starting quarterback clean. The end result recasts Martin as a mid-round draft pick next spring and Notre Dame’s best pro prospect at center since Jeff Faine. The scenario doesn’t feel all that unlikely considering the state of Notre Dame’s line as Martin returns to captain the offense for a second time. In this case, the best-case scenario also feels like the most likely one.
Martin is asked to carry the offensive line’s interior as Malik Zaire struggles to understand pressures while the Quenton Nelson/Alex Bars competition at left guard never settles. Instead of pushing the line forward, Martin spends the season holding it together. Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine Martin not going out on a high note, assuming the players around him hold up their end of the bargain.
If Martin goes wire-to-wire this season he’ll finish with 37 career starts, two more than the player he replaced at this position. Braxston Cave’s career arc was similar to Martin’s, minus the position change. Cave even suffered a lower body injury that ended a season, although that came during his fourth year, not the third year like Martin. Both players red-shirted as freshmen, then played sparingly as sophomores, mostly on special teams. It was virtually non-stop action from there, Cave starting all 13 games as a junior and fifth-year senior.
A consensus three-star prospect, Martin will soundly out-perform that ranking with a strong senior season. Three services, including Scout, tagged Martin as a tackle prospect out of high school. A fourth projected him at offensive guard. Martin actually played both those positions before moving to center in his third season at Notre Dame. The only real outlier among Martin’s rankings was his positional slot on Rivals as the nation’s No. 66 offensive tackle. That put Martin behind Chase Hounshell at the position, along with prospects who signed with Kansas, Cincinnati and Northwestern. Scout and ESPN had Martin at No. 39 among tackles.
Notre Dame hasn’t won many games on offense under Brian Kelly, but the line held up admirably against Arizona State two years ago in the Shamrock Series with Martin at center. Despite constant pressure on an immobile quarterback, the Irish didn’t surrender a sack. And somehow the front blocked well enough for Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson to net 136 yards rushing. Martin wasn’t Notre Dame’s best lineman in that game, but he helped hold down the interior at near peak proficiency.
“I never really played (center) until two springs ago. Never thought I’d be able to snap the ball and block someone. I really like communicating, like being in the middle of things. I don’t know, I just enjoy it.” – Nick Martin during spring practice this March