Once more with feeling

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Center Nick Martin and tackle Ronnie Stanley have combined to start 76 games while leading the Irish to 214.8 yards rushing per game in ’15.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – They are major college athletes who signed letters of intent to play football at the University of Notre Dame.

They expected a lot, they accomplished a lot.

But if you ask Irish center Nick Martin and left tackle Ronnie Stanley if their Notre Dame experience exceeded their expectations, there’s no hesitation.

By far.

“It’s gone above and beyond what I thought my experience would be,” said Martin, the Indianapolis product, who enters Friday’s Fiesta Bowl against No. 7 Ohio State with 26 career starts and the rare distinction of captaining two Notre Dame squads, following in the footsteps/accomplishments of his older brother.

“To be able to play with my brother Zack – my best friend -- and to have one more game with these guys…It’s a place I’ll definitely come back to.”

Stanley, who has started 38 games at right (13) and left (25) tackle, was the more highly-touted of the two departing Irish offensive linemen. Yet Stanley did not expect stardom to arrive so quickly and to the magnitude that it has.

After preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman while battling an elbow injury, Stanley stepped into the starting lineup at right tackle in ’13 and performed at a high level, prompting the move to the left side once Zack Martin completed his own brilliant collegiate career.

By the end of the 2014 season, there was talk of first-round, first-tackle-off-the-board in the NFL draft. Torn in his decision, Stanley decided to come back for his senior season and now exits (with a fifth-year of eligibility in his back pocket) as a rare consensus All-American.

“I’m just very grateful for everything I’ve been through and for everything I’ve been given throughout life,” said the Las Vegas product. “It puts things in perspective how you got to where you are right now and everything that led up to this point.”

On one hand, Stanley – a 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pounder – had high expectations for himself coming out of Bishop Gorman High School.

But potential first-round draft choice after his true junior season? Consensus All-American a year later? Pretty heady stuff for the soft-spoken offensive tackle.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be noticed as much as I’ve been,” said Stanley of his consensus All-American status. “I didn’t even know somebody would be watching (to that extent). That was more me just trying to play my best and make a name for myself.”

One surprise for Martin is the fact that he’ll exit Notre Dame as a center prospect. After spending time at tackle during his red-shirt freshman season, Martin emerged as a starter in ’13, starting 11 games at center before suffering a knee injury in the final home game of the season.

Martin played center and guard in ’14 as he battled a thumb injury.

“I really fell in love with the center spot,” Martin said. “I was fortunate to play a little guard, too.”

Martin and Stanley are forever indebted to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, whose lessons extend far beyond the trenches.

“He’s a guy that tries to relate to you as a person and understand you,” Stanley said. “Even when you don’t really tell him anything about your life, he understands you. He’s been there before. He’s coached a lot of players. He’s one of those guys you want to build a relationship with. He’s good people.”

“In his first meeting at Notre Dame, he said what he wanted the standard to be and that’s never changed,” Martin added. “The consistency he brings to the meeting room and the field is a great example. He wants the best for you, not only as a football player but as a person. He makes you a better person on and off the field.”

Thanks in large part to Martin and Stanley, the Irish enter the Ohio State game averaging 214.8 yards rushing per game. Notre Dame needs just 22 yards rushing against the Buckeyes to assure the Irish finish above 200 yards rushing over the course of a season for the first time in 15 years.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” Martin said. “It’s been very special at a very special place.”

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