Greer Martini made it look so easy. Looks can be deceiving.
The path to a starting spot at Will linebacker this, his junior season, has been filled with landmines.
As a freshman linebacker out of Woodberry Forest (Va.) School in 2014 – following former Woodberry standout C.J. Prosise and joining classmate Doug Randolph at Notre Dame – Martini was the defense’s designated fourth linebacker against Navy’s triple-option attack.
“I played two or three option teams in high school, but I think it was just the mere fact that I was going to get to play,” said Martini of the nine tackles in his first career start against Navy.
“I said, ‘If this is the team I’m going to get to play against, I’m going to become really good at it.’ I studied a lot of film and met with Coach (Brian) VanGorder two weeks before we saw an option team.”
Martini would get another chance in the final regular-season game of his freshman season at USC when linebacker Joe Schmidt and several other frontline defenders were sidelined with injuries. Martini added another five tackles, including one for a loss, in the one-sided setback to the Trojans.
But Martini’s progress was delayed during his sophomore season in 2015, backing up starter James Onwualu at Sam linebacker. His biggest break came via the order of the opponents on the schedule, which featured options teams in Week Three (Georgia Tech) and Week Six (Navy).
Once again, Martini was productive, totaling eight stops against the Yellow Jackets and another nine against Navy to tie his career-high from the previous season against the Midshipmen.
“I knew that was my opportunity to get on the field,” Martini said. “That was my chance.”
When Martini was given the opportunity to start the last two games of the ’15 regular season due to an Onwualu injury, he made a combined six stops against Boston College and Stanford, two tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and a sack.
In limited action spanning two seasons, 26 games and six starts, Martini recorded a noteworthy 61 tackles, including 4½ for lost yardage.
Still, Martini was -- as football coaches are apt to say -- drinking through a fire hose. An overwhelming amount of information disseminated from the mind of VanGorder scrambled Martini.
“It’s definitely been difficult, and it took two years,” said the 6-foot-2½, 240-pound Martini. “I got yelled at a lot my first couple years here.
“But you learn through those mistakes, and over the two years, they’ve moved me around to all three (linebacker) positions. I’ve had to be good at all three to get to this point.”
Martini’s journey to a starting role – head coach Brian Kelly named him the No. 1 Will linebacker for the Sept. 5 opener at Texas – is complete after a heated competition with sophomores Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal.
“Greer has been playing mostly Will linebacker, and he’s done a really good job,” Kelly said. “Will linebacker is in pretty good hands.”
Not without a struggle, both mentally and physically. First, it was a matter of overcoming information overload and a depth chart featuring the quick-study skills of Onwualu and the athletic phenomenon that was Jaylon Smith.
Then Martini tore his labrum during bowl preparation for Ohio State, undergoing surgery shortly thereafter, missing spring drills and rehabbing until full clearance in July.
For all of his struggles adapting to the system, Martini is eminently more qualified to play wherever VanGorder decides to align him.
“Will and Sam are essentially the same position, just on different sides of the field,” Martini said. “Mike is probably the one I feel the least comfortable at because it’s the quarterback of the defense. But I definitely feel comfortable at the Sam and Will spots.”
Lined up next to Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan, who also struggled to adapt his first two years while Schmidt mastered the system, Martini is ready.
“All the various defensive schemes and stuff, I didn’t know what was going on,” Martini said. “It’s hard to be confident when you don’t know what’s going on.
“Now I have a true understanding of the defense, which has allowed me to be more confident and make more plays.”
VanGorder’s bark isn’t directed at Martini the way it used to be.
“We threw him in there when he was a freshman,” VanGorder recalled. “He’s a totally different player. He’s a confident football player now.”
The ringing in Martini’s ears from VanGorder’s vigilant style of coaching has dissipated.
“It’s definitely an adjustment, and you have to kind of get used to (VanGorder’s) coaching methods,” Martini said. “There are different ways to go about it. But his coaching style has made me the player I am today.”
That player – the 2016 version of Martini – is the leading candidate to be Notre Dame’s top tackler this year.
“We don’t want him to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none,” said Kelly of Martini’s versatility. “We’ve given him enough work at Will so he could solidify that position first, which he has.”
Texas can’t come soon enough.
“We have an experienced linebacker corps with Nyles playing behind Joe and James starting for three years,” Martini said. “I’ve had some game experience, too. I can’t wait.”