Notebook: Message clear for Nick Martin and Notre Dame offensive line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As natural as it felt for Nick Martin firing back shotgun snaps to Notre Dame’s dueling quarterbacks Wednesday morning, what really hit home were two familiar voices critiquing the Irish center as he returned to his old position.

Former ND offensive line standouts Zack Martin and Chris Watt not only soaked in ND’s first practice of 15 this spring, the NFL rookies had plenty of advice for Zack’s younger brother.

Zack Martin, a four-year starter at offensive tackle during his Notre Dame days, played guard for the Dallas Cowboys this past season and became the first offensive lineman in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

Watt started out as a guard for the San Diego Chargers before moving to center late in the season and earning a handful of starts at that position.

“They love the program and the guys here,” Nick Martin said. “It’s great to have guys like that come back, especially with the success they’re having. Obviously, I’ll listen to whatever they have to say.”

The message from them, from ND offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, from Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly, to the entire offensive line — it’s time to get more physical.

That’s something last year’s line, loaded with skill and depth, could provide only intermittently. With a more-mobile quarterback, the Irish allowed 28 sacks last season after yielding just eight in 2013. Their negative yardage plays overall increased from 56 allowed in 2013 to 83.

And even with Everett Golson and Malik Zaire adding to the rushing average rather than Tommy Rees detracting from it, ND’s average yards per rush still dipped slightly (4.3 yards per carry from 4.5).

“You always want to be more physical, that’s the nature of the position,” Martin said. “You really just want to go out and hit guys, and I think we want to do that on a more consistent basis this year.”

Moving Martin, healthy now after playing with torn thumb ligaments last season, back to center is a good start.

That was his position in 2013 and at the onset of last season, before Kelly and company moved him to left guard in a massive, mid-September offensive line shuffle designed to address leaks and soft spots in the interior.

Jumping into the vacant left guard spot this spring are two massive but athletic redshirt freshmen — 6-5, 325-pound Quenton Nelson and 6-6, 316-pound Alex Bars. Had last year’s starting center, Matt Hegarty, remained on the Irish roster, the 6-5, 295-pounder would have had to beat them out.

Instead he’s opting to be a grad school-style transfer and play immediately at another school next fall, leaving two of ND’s brightest young offensive stars, regardless of position, to battle it out.

“Quinn’s a bigger guy, kind of reminds me of Chris Watt,” Martin said. “Just a mauler, a guy who loves to hit people, loves to run block, just move people off the ball. It’s nice and it helps.

“Alex is really just a smart player. He’s always in the right spot, and it just comes natural to him. He understands football, which is a huge advantage, especially being a younger player.”

Kelly was tempted to play one or the other last season, but wanted to preserve a year of eligibility, all the while believing that September shift would at some point kick in.

It finally did in ND’s 31-28 upset of LSU Dec. 30 in the Music City Bowl, in Nashville, Tenn. In that game, the line didn’t allow a sack for only the second time all season. And in the run game, they overpowered the nation’s No. 9 overall defense to the tune of 263 yards on a season-high 51 carries.

Simply replicating that game plan against ND’s 2015 schedule isn’t an option, though, Kelly said.

“Every game takes on a different shape and form,” he said. “If it was just easy to say that we could play that game and we were going to be defended that way each and every week, you guys could come up here and do this yourself.

“It's a lot more than that. Each and every week is a different game plan. We have to look at each week and attack each week based upon what we believe is going to get us a ‘W’ at the end of the day.”

But a physical offensive line, Kelly admitted, never goes out of style.

“We want to be more physical, there's no question,” he said.

Quinn reunites with Kelly

Once rumored to be Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, former longtime Kelly assistant Jeff Quinn finally found a path to reunite with the Irish head coach.

Quinn, fired last fall seven games into his fifth season as head coach at the University at Buffalo, is ND’s new offensive analyst, an off-the-field staff position.

“Just more brain power in the room is what we’re looking for,” Kelly said of the hire,” and a lot of experience.”

Twenty-one of the 52-year-old’s 31 years in coaching have come with Kelly on the same staff, and most of those as Kelly’s offensive coordinator. Quinn’s specialty on offense is line play, but his role will not be limited to that.

Quinn was at practice Wednesday morning at the Loftus Center, already decked out in Notre Dame colors.

Kelly also announced he has promoted recruiting and personnel assistant Pryce Tracy to special teams analyst. Kelly said he is still looking to hire a defensive analyst.

QB watch

The best thing about Day One of the Golson/Zaire quarterback competition, per Kelly, was new quarterback coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sanford’s imprint on both of the wannabe starters.

“I want to see a consistency and attention to detail more than anything else,” he said. “Eradicate any of the gray area as it relates to the fundamentals of the quarterback position.

“We’re not going to open it up to interpretation as to what’s expected for footwork, read progressions, sight adjustments, all those things. And just even today they all looked the same. First-step progression, where the ball is going, communication. It’s exactly what I was hoping for in the first day.”

Sanford’s role in the meeting room, to use Kelly’s lexicon, is “to turn the room upside down,” with fresh ideas. But his primary job, above all, is to straighten out the QBs.

“There’s no misunderstanding in terms of what’s being taught and how it’s being taught and what’s expected,” Kelly beamed. “There’s no, ‘Well, can I do it this way?’ It’s, ‘This is how we want it done. This is what we expect.’ And not in an I’m-going-to-hit-you-over-the-head manner.

“It’s done in a very professional, well-communicated manner that’s non-threatening, but it’s clear and concise. I was impressed with the way the quarterbacks handled it and looked today on the first day.”

Added center Nick Martin on Sanford, “Demands a lot out of his players. You can already tell in the voice of the quarterbacks a difference, and I really think that’s going to help us.”

Blue-Gold Game on TV?

It is not a done deal yet, but both Notre Dame and NBC Sports Network appear to be moving toward an agreement to have the network televise the April 18 Blue-Gold Game. An announcement could come as early as late this week.

Because of construction to Notre Dame Stadium, the game had to be moved, and school officials settled on the LaBar Practice Complex on campus.

The much smaller venue means no public sale of tickets and an invite-only policy for spectators. It also posed some logistical challenges for television.

Practice notes

• The long-term significance is likely minimal, but here’s how the first-team offense and defense lined up Wednesday morning at the Loftus Center:

• On offense, quarterback Everett Golson was joined by running back Tarean Folston; wide receivers Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Will Fuller; tight end Durham Smythe; and offensive linemen (from left tackle going right) Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey.

On defense, ends Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell were joined by defensive tackles Sheldon Day and Jacob Matuska. The linebackers were Jaylon Smith, Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu, with Cole Luke and Devin Butler at cornerback, and Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate at safety.

• Recovering middle linebacker (broken fibula) Joe Schmidt was in uniform Wednesday and did take part in some non-contact drills.


Notre Dame offensive lineman Nick Martin (72) during the game against Arizona State, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, in Tempe, Arizona. (AP Photo/RICK SCUTERI)