Martin, Notre Dame offensive line surge key to Stanford matchup and beyond

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nick Martin tugs at a protective splint of sorts, masking three tears in his right thumb, as he talks about toughness and where his comes from.

“There’s no doubt about it, it’s my mom (Pam),” the recently converted Notre Dame offensive guard said of the only person of five in the Martin household who didn’t play either offensive or defensive line at the collegiate level.

“She just doesn’t put up with anything. And she’s always the one going out to the game, and she sees you and tells you to whoop butt or keep your feet moving. It’s like, ‘All right, Mom.’ “

This is the week the 6-foot-5, 295-pound senior doesn’t need a reminder, if he ever did.

Stanford (3-1), which brings a No. 14 national ranking and the hopes it can scramble back into the college football playoff discussion to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, has become the poster child for retro smash-mouth football during the past half decade or so.

No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) would like to elbow its way into that image, something Irish coach Brian Kelly’s teams have done intermittently since his arrival after the 2009 season.

“There’s a sense of everybody in this room knows what to expect from Stanford, so I didn’t have to drill too deep to get that message across to our guys,” Kelly said. “They know the physicality of this game, because Stanford has done it year in and year out.

“We got pushed around in my first year here, and we have battled back, if you will. We still have not come out on the right side of that battle yet, but clearly we feel we match up in the matter of being physical. Now we’ve got to be better on that one given Saturday.”

It starts with Martin and a recently reshuffled offensive line, whose measurable metrics four games into the season (75th rush offense, tied for 52nd sacks allowed) don’t reflect the perceived talent or potential of the group.

Stanford is experiencing a similar phenomenon with its all-junior, all mega-prospect offensive line, led by Irish recruiting loss Andrus Peat. Its metrics are almost identically pedestrian (69th rushing offense, tied for 52nd in sacks allowed).

Where the Cardinal aren’t experiencing a statistical shortfall is with their defense. Stanford is the nation’s leader in total defense and scoring defense and likely the unofficial leader in bruises dispensed.

“We approach every game the same,” Martin said, “but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘This is going to be an extra-tough game.’

“But I love these games. It’s fun football. It’s one-on-one. It’s grind it out and let’s hit each other.”

It’s up to Kelly, ND’s self-reinstated offensive play-caller this season, to sprinkle in the right amount of finesse to complement the primal elements.

To this point in 2014, the Irish have leaned on or led with their defense, much as they have in Notre Dame’s first four seasons under Kelly. This was the year, though, the fifth-year head coach had realistically hoped to have an offense that could produce the same kind of splash as the defense and perhaps some pyrotechnics to go with it.

From 2010-13, Kelly was seemingly hamstrung by odd fits or inexperience at quarterback — or both. And that could account for the Irish never producing a top-45 scoring offense or a team passing efficiency ranking of 50th or better during his watch.

The pass efficiency number this year, with senior Everett Golson back at quarterback after a one-year exile, is markedly better (17th) so far as it heads into a clash with a Stanford unit that has allowed the fewest passing yards per game and is No. 5 nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

Kelly believes in being proactive, even when he feels the status quo is tolerable. He’s tried diligently to recalibrate offensively and/or philosophically in some form or fashion almost every offseason that he’s been in South Bend.

But college football is an endless loop of adjustments and counter-adjustments. And just when you think one side of the ball is about to shift the balance of power for good, a new cycle on the other side emerges and sprawls through extensive copy-catting.

“I think what’s important every offseason is watch the landscape of college football,” Kelly said. “You have to look at yourself, but also you’re trying to look at where the game is.”

This offseason’s most significant offensive idea swap was with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and his staff.

“We weren’t going to be playing them for a little bit,” Kelly said. “But it’s like in any business, there are proprietary things that you think that maybe you have a competitive advantage with, that are your own, that you’re probably not going to share.”

On his own, Kelly decided to test his offense in the spring rather than coddling it. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder wasn’t just charged with installing his new scheme in the 15 spring sessions, he was asked to make the offensive template better, largely through duress.

VanGorder’s most recent experience — a season with the master of defensive exotics and unpredictable pressures, in Jets head coach Rex Ryan — proved to be just the right touch.

“I told him ‘Throw everything you’ve got at it,’ “ Kelly said. “If you really want to know if something’s going to be effective before you get into your season, then you can’t set yourself up for success. You’ve got to be willing to take some lumps in spring ball.

“So we told our guys, ‘Here’s how it’s going to go. There are going to be some tough days.’

“I guess it’s like anything else. People have focus groups. You have product demonstrations, so you get a glimpse of it. Spring ball was an opportunity for us — don’t set it up and make it easy. And I think in the spring we saw things that we’re very encouraged about.”

Stanford was the team Kelly most had in mind when he went down that road. But his hunch was the offensive line was the position group that needed the spring shake-up the least.

Instead, its lack of consistency and dominance has become an elusive missing puzzle piece.

So Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand rebooted after week three, having offensive tackle Steve Elmer switch places with Christian Lombard on the right side. And Martin moved from center to left guard, switching places with Matt Hegarty.

Martin was the only one who didn’t have more starting experience at his realigned position. He, in fact, had none.

“He could play either one of those positions at the highest level,” Kelly said of Martin, who was actually a backup tackle in the 2012 season. “So it’s a coin flip at center/guard for him.

“I’m not saying we moved him because of the (thumb) injury, but it definitely makes it a little bit more difficult on him (to snap) on a day-to-day basis.”

Said Martin of the move: “You’ve got to get used to it. Obviously, still it’s different, so there’s a lot more work to put into it.

“You’ve got to get the job done, but you’ve got to get better each game, each practice. You’ve got to take a step forward every time you’re on the field.”

Martin has enhanced his chances by watching old game film of Chris Watt, ND’s starter at left guard last season and now a rookie with the San Diego Chargers.

“One of the first things I did was talk to Chris,” Martin said.

And his older brother, Zack.

The former four-year starter at left tackle for the Irish is starting at guard for the surprising Dallas Cowboys and was recently rated by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. as the NFL’s third-best rookie, behind only Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley and Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller.

“Until his junior year in high school, my freshman year, it was all head-butting and competitive between us,” Nick said. “That’s the first time I realized he was on my side. That’s also when I realized how good of player he is, not only his work ethic but how he approaches everything.

“That’s when I kind of stopped and paid close attention.”

And now the eyes are on Nick Martin, the leader of the offensive line, with the most discerning looks coming from a familiar source.

“There’s no doubt,” Martin said, “my mom will let me know where we stand.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame offensive lineman Nick Martin talks to the media during media day on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, at Notre Dame (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)