Captain nod just beginning of transformative offseason for Notre Dame LB Greer Martini

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly asked about the past, then the future.

The first part, of course, is what Notre Dame’s increasingly ballyhooed exit interviews were for. Following an equally devastating and unexpected 4-8 season, just his second losing campaign in 25 years as a head coach, Kelly sat down individually with 93 Irish players and ran down a master list:

• What can I do differently?

• How can the program improve?

• Where did it all go wrong?

• How can we make you better?

But when it came to Greer Martini, Kelly added an extra query.

“We all had our exit interviews where we basically said where we had to get better as a program, and as an individual,” Notre Dame’s senior linebacker said on Wednesday. “(Kelly) said, ‘Hey, would you be willing to lead this team?’”

It wasn’t a question Martini expected, but a challenge he — and five others — embraced. At the program’s Echoes awards banquet in December, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker and six others (including quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has since declared for the NFL Draft) were named 2017 team captains, a full eight months before such honors are traditionally bestowed.

This has been an enormously irregular offseason.

Necessary, too.

“The biggest effect (of naming captains early) is that it gives us the opportunity where he said, ‘Hey, these are the guys. Everyone can lead, but these are the main guys,’” Martini said. “So you have that platform and you can start leading early on, because in the offseason no one usually knows who those people are going to be. They’re trying to feel it out and some guys try to take that role.

“It was really nice that we were given the opportunity to start leading in such an early capacity, so in the summer he can kind of pass us the team and we can run it.”

The irregularity of the past few months doesn’t end there. Notre Dame also introduced five new full-time assistant coaches, as well as director of football performance Matt Balis, who takes over for longtime Kelly confidante Paul Longo. The faces were different. The routine was different.

You may be able to guess whether the workouts were different, too.

“Totally different. So much more intense,” said Martini, who has accumulated 116 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in three seasons while hopping between linebacker spots. “Our first workout at the beginning of the year was harder than any workout I went through in my three years here. That just sets the tone.”

Throughout the last two months, it’s been Balis’ job to set the tone.

It was up to Notre Dame’s captains, Martini included, to make sure the Irish match it.

“As a leadership (group), this offseason — this first eight weeks — has been a huge platform to lead, because we have been through these strenuous workouts,” said Martini, who notched career-highs in tackles (55), tackles for loss (7) and sacks (3) last season. “It gives you an opportunity to pick someone up, get them going, tell them to touch the line, because fatigue makes cowards of us all.

“So in that situation, we can go in and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s do this the right way.’ I think that’s been huge for us as leaders. We put in the time those eight weeks, and the guys will respond.”

That response began in earnest on Wednesday, when Notre Dame ran through the first of 15 spring practices. And for Martini, a renovated program may allow for personal renovation, too. Whereas he was previously labeled an option specialist and utility linebacker, now the Cary, N.C., native aims to find a home as a buck linebacker and full-time starter.

To do that, he’ll have to impress first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko and linebackers coach Clark Lea. He must hold his own against the likes of juniors Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal and sophomore Jamir Jones, too.

He’ll have to continue to accept Kelly’s challenge, while embracing a whole lot of change.

“It’s weird, because as a senior you kind of want it to be the same (routine),” Martini said. “You work for three years to get to a certain spot.

“But now that we have this newness, that opens up everything. There’s competition. Everything is new in here and it’s kind of fresh. It’s nice.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

In an offseason ripe with change, Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini hopes his sustained leadership makes a difference. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA