Noie: What made former Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini so good against Navy option?
Even now, four years after he last was asked to do something that nobody on the Notre Dame football team could come close to duplicating in determination or desire, former Irish linebacker Greer Martini is at a loss for words.
For someone who can offer a colorful quote as easily as making a tackle in space — about football, about life after football, about getting back into football — that’s saying something.
Playing for Notre Dame was special for Martini, but there was something a little extra about it when a certain service academy popped up on the annual schedule. When it was time for Notre Dame to play Navy, it was time for Martini to go to work. That was his highlight week.
Who knows how it all started — actually, Martini does — but anytime Notre Dame played Navy, Martini played his best. Like the nine tackles he made against the Midshipmen when he was a true freshman. Or the nine more he made the following year. To prove those first two showings weren’t a fluke, Martini made 11 tackles against Navy as a junior. He capped his final season with a career best 15 tackles on Senior Day.
Of the 191 career tackles Martini made at Notre Dame, 44 came against Navy. That’s 23 percent of his total tackles against one team. Why? How?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Martini said Wednesday from Nashville, where he’s in his first year as a quality control coach on defense at Vanderbilt. “Navy week, for me, was an opportunity to get on the field and showcase my talent.
“I knew that it was my time to shine.”
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Martini’s role as a one-man option stopper evolved by chance. As Notre Dame prepared to play Navy in 2014 during Martini’s first season, then-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder decided to go with a different approach (big shock, right Irish fans?). He wanted to combat the option offense by placing an additional linebacker in the middle of the field.
When Navy prep week rolled around that year, Martini and fellow freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan auditioned for that LB role. The player who best picked up the scheme and could diagnose what the option was all about would be the one to play that Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
“They threw us out on the practice field and it was something that came naturally for me,” Martini said. “I got the starting spot.”
Martini had no previous experience against the option. No previous test that he had aced. Defending the option often is an exercise in aggravation for defenders in trying to read their keys and find the ball and stick to the coordinator’s principles.
“Greer Martini was one of those guys who really had the option down,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “Just had the sense of where the ball was going.”
Martini made it look easy. It was about playing football. Running around. Having fun. He never made a game that’s complicated enough too complicated, especially when it came to playing Navy.
“For me, it was always, see ball, get ball,” he said. “I know you have to be disciplined within the structure of the defense, but so much of it was instinctual and reactionary. Like, go find the ball and good things will happen.”
Good things for Martini meant tackles. A lot of them. After that first showing against Navy, he became known as the option linebacker. If Notre Dame was playing a team that featured heavy option emphasis — Georgia Tech his sophomore year in 2015, Army the following year, Navy every year — No. 48 was going to get a lot of snaps.
It became a point of pride, but it also was bittersweet.
“I always hated when people said, ‘Oh, you’re only a triple-option guy,’” Martini said. “I understood that was my role. I was able to go out there and play.”
And make plays. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Martini was able to do it and do it well because he could just go play. Against the option, there’s not a lot of time to process what’s going on. Ask yourself as a defender who might have the ball – the quarterback, the dive guy, the wing guy – and the ball and the guy are past you.
Quick thinking helped Martini.
“It was like, you see something, you’ve got to react right away or you’re going to be on your back or an offensive lineman is going to be coming for your feet,” Martini said. “You just go with your initial thought. That made me a quicker, better player against those teams.”
The last chapter, the next chapter
Martini’s most memorable moment against Navy is easy. Senior season. Final home game of his collegiate career. It was an ugly afternoon even for South Bend weather standards that mid-November day. The skies were gray. There was rain. There was wind. And, before everything, a few tears as Martini ran out of the tunnel for the final time to greet his family.
“It was gross out,” he said. “Not many want to play Navy and then to play them in those conditions, but it was my last time to do it. It was my time to be there for my teammates.”
Martini was there and here and everywhere that afternoon. He played the option. He played instinctual. He was really good in a 24-17 Irish win. He was awarded the game ball for his team-high 15 tackles. Outside of being named a team captain his senior season, it’s his proudest Notre Dame moment.
The game ball sits in Martini’s home office in the Nashville apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Nearby is the framed Senior Day jersey with a message of thanks from Kelly.
“It’s pretty special,” Martini said. “Every time I see that jersey and that ball, I think back to that day.”
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Having graduated in the spring of 2018, Martini gave professional football the old college try. He had a cup-of-coffee kind of tryout with the Green Bay Packers in 2018. He played in the Alliance of American Football in 2019. He tried the XFL in 2020. After that league folded, so did his football dream. He was ready to put the game behind him for good and put his finance degree to use.
He lasted 11 months.
He spent the first three with a large investment banking firm out of New York working from his parents’ home in Cary, North Carolina. Then he moved to the big city with an apartment in SoHo.
He stayed in the city and at the job for eight more months. To say he hated it is too kind. Martini thought playing football was a grind. That was nothing compared to life as an investment banker.
“I was pretty miserable sitting behind a computer all day,” he said. “It wasn’t for me.”
The more hours he logged in the corporate world, the more Martini missed the football world. He’d thought of becoming a coach after his playing days ended, but wanted to try the real world. In February, former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea called Martini and offered him a spot on his coaching staff at Vanderbilt.
Martini jumped at the chance to coach, to teach, to see the game from a new perspective. The hours still are exhausting and unforgiving, but at the end of the day, the 26-year-old Martini feels better because of it.
He knew that almost immediately.
“It was one of the first practices we had this season and the sun was setting and we were still on the practice field,” Martini said. “I was like, ‘OK, all the long hours are worth it because of this.’”
With Vanderbilt off this week, Martini planned to return home to North Carolina for the weekend to see family and friends. On Saturday afternoon, they’ll gather to watch Navy play Notre Dame. Having spent the previous nine weeks viewing the game as a coach, Martini relishes a chance to watch Saturday’s game as if he were still a player. Still running around out there against Navy and making all those tackles.
“You never get rid of having that eye for it,” Martini said. “I’m excited just to see the guys fly around and have some fun.”
Just as he always did against Navy.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI