Versatile Notre Dame LB Greer Martini hunting his 'holy grail'

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Greer Martini has carved a career out of exceeded expectations.

Like, for instance, the expectation that the 6-foot-4, 236-pound senior couldn’t be an every-down linebacker; that he wasn’t fast enough or athletic enough to survive an explosive spread offense; that he was an “option specialist,” valuable against Navy or Army or Georgia Tech, and otherwise insignificant.

This season, through five games as Notre Dame’s starting weakside linebacker, Martini ranks third on the team with 34 tackles, to go along with a team-high two forced fumbles, two tackles for loss and an interception.

A few weeks ago, standing at a podium inside Notre Dame’s indoor practice facility, Martini was asked what he’s most proud of in his career.

The answer was instantaneous.

“At times I felt like I was just used as a specialized player, whether that was against the option or not,” Martini said, “and for me to show the coaches that I can be an every-down linebacker I think is the proudest (accomplishment) I've had in my career.”

On the subject of unfounded expectations, here’s another one: Martini is just a big, bulky, run-stuffing linebacker, right? He can plug a gap, sure, but who would ever think to put a football under his arm?

“In high school they would use me off and on at tight end,” Martini said. “I think my senior year they threw me the ball like eight times and I had five touchdowns. I love having the ball in my hands.”

So does Nyles Morgan.

Last Saturday, with Notre Dame cradling an early 7-0 lead, Miami (Ohio) quarterback Gus Ragland took a shotgun snap and delivered a pass up the seam in the direction of 6-4 junior wide receiver James Gardner.

It never got there.

Martini cut under the route, turned his head, tipped the ball to himself and brought it down. As he did, Morgan ran towards him and raised both arms in the air, providing a temporary, miniature imitation of Touchdown Jesus.

But the part-time high school tight end wasn’t done. Martini — with the football nestled under his left arm — burst into the open field, cutting back to his left and dodging diving would-be tacklers.

“Martini looking like a running back, into RedHawk territory!” NBC Sports Network play-by-play announcer Paul Burmeister bellowed.

Notre Dame’s Greer Martini (48) runs after making an interception during the Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

By the time he was finally brought down, Notre Dame’s first-year captain had nabbed his first career interception and returned it 42 yards.

It was an unforgettable experience.

And he doesn’t remember much.

“As a defensive player or a linebacker, you don’t get that many opportunities at it, so it was the holy grail for me,” Martini said. “I went up for it, had the ball in my hands and then it was just about trying to get as many yards as I could.”

He added: “I couldn’t even tell you what was going on. It was almost like I blacked out. It just happened, and I ended up on the ground with the ball.”

The play itself is hazy.

The response is perfectly clear.

“(My teammates) were super excited,” Martini said, “and then afterwards, it was like, ‘You should have gone all the way with it.’ ”

Actually, they have a point.

For Martini — and for the Notre Dame defense — good is never good enough. There is always another level.

“We just have to keep getting better each and every week,” Martini said. “This team’s a special team, and I think that we prepare better than any team I’ve been on in my four years here.

“We’re just going to continue to practice the right way and get ready for UNC.”

North Carolina, by the way, has stumbled out to an uncharacteristic 1-4 start. The Tar Heels are starting a redshirt freshman — lefty Chazz Surratt — at quarterback, and have lost a bewildering 13 players to season-ending injuries. They rank 125th nationally in third-down offense, converting 28.8 percent of their tries, and have managed just two runs of 30 or more yards.

Notre Dame, to compare, has 15.

But Martini, of all people, knows not to judge a book by its cover.

Expectations are often amiss.

“Here's a guy that's a captain for us that's leading our kickoff team in tackles,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “He's doing things that put us in a really good position because he can play out in space and get his hands on footballs and do those kinds of things, and then moving back in the box, he's physical enough to play in there.

“So he's a very important player for us in all respects. He’s a very versatile player. He can do a lot for us.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’ linebacker Greer Martini (48) celebrates forcing a fumble during ND's 38-18 victory over Michigan State, Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)