NOTRE DAME — After squaring off every day in practice against a preseason All-American like Louis Nix, lining up against Temple on Saturday might seem like a walk in the park for Nick Martin.
Martin, who’ll replace Braxston Cave at center when Notre Dame opens the 2013 season on Saturday, Aug. 31, remembers his first head-to-head with Nix, the team’s brawling grizzly bear of a nose guard.
“It was in the spring, him down in that stance ... he’s basically a few inches from your face,” Martin said.
All Martin could think of at the moment was, “get the ball to the quarterback and get him blocked.”
No small task for sure, yet up and down the Fighting Irish camp, coaches and players have applauded Martin’s determination and skill as he moved from guard to center.
“He was going to do everything in his power to take the position, and he’s done it,” said Harry Hiestand, ND’s offensive line coach. “He did it in the winter, he did it all spring and he’s had great summer training. He’s just kept himself in a position where he’s been steady to not open it up for anybody else to have a shot. He’s made mistakes, he’s got to get better, but he’s done enough to maintain the position all the way through and he gets a little better each day.”
And with the talented likes of Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kona Schwenke and Sheldon Day bringing their speed and power to the table every workout, Martin learned quickly to keep his head up and bolted on tightly.
“He knows he’s got to be at his best on every snap, so that in itself is a great help to any player that he has to be ready to go,” Hiestand said. “If he’s a little bit off or not totally focused, he’s going to get blown up, so that’s a great benefit to play against great competition.”
Head coach Brian Kelly went a step further, tabbing Martin, the Indianapolis junior, as one of the two most improved players on the Irish roster. Prior to spring drills, Martin had never snapped a ball in his life.
“He went from the spring as such an important position at center, where you’re taking over one of the most important positions on the offensive line,” Kelly said, “where we were hopeful to where he went against Louis Nix every day, one of the best if not the best nose guard in the country and has done very well. I would say that the progress that he’s made in such a very short period of time has been really impressive for me.”
Transitioning to center took its time, naturally. Martin said it was all about the reps — in and out of practice — which made the difference.
“You’ve got to do it a thousand times, just doing it every day,” Martin said. “It’s something you can do as long as you have a football. You can do it outside of practice. It’s just timing. I really like it.”
And the timing couldn’t better for Martin or the Irish.
Last season, ND started the same offensive line for all 13 games, but graduation took Cave and Mike Golic Jr. Christian Lombard, who started all of last year at tackle, will slide down to guard and Ronnie Stanley takes over at tackle.
That’s one end of the line.
When Martin looks down the other side of the line, there’s two familiar faces there, too — guard Chris Watt and tackle Zack Martin, one of Notre Dame’s captains, Nick’s older brother and arguably the most respected player on the Irish roster.
That makes Nick Martin’s personal pressure list a daunting one:
Starting center for the University of Notre Dame.
Practices daily against a preseason All-American nose guard.
Lauded by the head coach in camp.
Brother is tri-captain and lining up six feet away.
It sounds like a load to carry for a first-time starter, but Zack Martin hasn’t seen any cracks in his younger brother’s armor.
“It’s been great. It’s been really cool just being able to line up next to him out there,” Zack said. “He knows he’s counted on like everyone else and he knows that the coaches have high expectations and that I have high expectations for him. He’s done a great job.”
“He’s determined to get his guy blocked, which is the most important thing for an offensive lineman,” Watt said. “Going against Louis Nix every day in practice is a tough job, and Braxston (Cave) would tell you the same thing.
“Nick has done a great job just competing and I think that’s the biggest thing he brings to the table is that he’s a competitor and he’s determined to get a down block on every play.”