Dec. 2, 2015
By Denise Skwarcan
As young football players, most kids get a chance to play several different positions. It gives the coach the opportunity to evaluate where the player will be most successful, but it also lets the kid experience a position that might never have a chance to otherwise. Who doesn’t want to be quarterback and throw the ball or score a touchdown as a running back?
University of Notre Dame center Nick Martin has lined up in one position since his football career began, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s always been the offensive line because of my size,” says the 6-4, 301-pound Martin with a laugh. “Plus my father played there, and I enjoy it.”
At Notre Dame, however, Martin isn’t the biggest guy on the offensive line. Truth be told, he’s one of the guys who does the least amount of damage when he steps on the scale … at least among his line mates. He is, however, their undeniable leader, and anchors an offensive line that has made Notre Dame one of the most productive offensive teams in the country.
Throughout the 2015 campaign, Martin and the offensive line have thrown nine games (and a 7-1 mark), the Irish threw their muscle around so running back C.J. Prosise could weave his way to more than 140 yards per game. They also give their young quarterback, DeShone Kizer, plenty of time in the pocket so he can connect with receiver Will Fuller, among others, who ranks among the nation’s leaders in receptions and touchdown receptions.
“I just really enjoy playing center,” says Martin, who also feels that is his best position. “It’s in the middle and I’m getting everybody on the same page and making calls. It kind of comes natural.”
Maybe because it runs in the family … sort of. Father Keith played football at Kentucky where he started out as an offensive lineman and then became an Academic All-Southeastern Conference pick as the team's top defensive tackle in 1982. Oldest brother Josh was a defensive lineman at the University of Indianapolis.
Then there’s older brother Zack, a stalwart on the Irish offensive line for four years before becoming a first-round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. It was Zack who had a subtle hand in getting his little brother to join the Irish.
“I was actually committed to Kentucky for a while because my dad went there and we grew up going to their games,” says (Nick) Martin who was a top offensive lineman at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. “I wasn’t a Notre Dame fan because of that, and they ended up offering (a scholarship to me) late. Zack made it known that he wanted me to come to Notre Dame but he didn’t pressure me. But he was (at Notre Dame) and we’re close, so that made it an easy decision to switch.”
Having Zack on the same campus and the same team helped with the transition of not playing as a freshman in 2011. In reality, unlike many freshman who encounter bumps in the road like lack of playing time and being away from home, the youngest Martin experienced few struggles his first year in South Bend.
“I had no problem adjusting whatsoever especially with having my brother here,” Martin says. “I had to get used to the game somewhat and, even though I redshirted that year, I continued to travel which was a great experience. So it was different in that sense, but I got to learn more about the game and watch more as a player.
“You know, that was such a long time ago, but I really don’t remember it being hard. And with my brother and my family being close … I was never homesick.”
By the following year Nick had eased his way onto the depth chart. He became the primary back-up at both tackle positions (but also had the versatility to play guard and center) by the end of the season during which the Irish rolled up an undefeated record before losing in the national title game. Nick also joined Zack as one of four pairs of brothers on the Irish roster, the others being Josh and George Atkinson, Mike and Jake Golic and Chris and Will Salvi.
By 2013, Martin had earned his place as one of the top players on Notre Dame’s offensive line, starting the first 11 games at center. Two doors down was brother Zack starting at tackle after returning for a fifth and final year, in part, because he knew he would have the opportunity to start alongside his brother. The Irish finished with a 9-4 mark and the offensive line allowed just eight sacks during those 13 games, making them the second best team in the country to protect their signal caller that well.
“We didn’t play on the same team in high school, so it was really cool when we did (at Notre Dame),” Nick Martin says. “The first time I actually lined up with him, I was playing on and off and then we scored a touchdown versus Wake Forest my redshirt freshman year (in 2012). I didn’t start next to him until Zack’s final year, but it was awesome.”
But 2013 ended on a tough note for Nick. It was the last time the brothers would play together under the Dome, but Nick’s season also was cut short due to a knee injury suffered in the outing versus BYU. Martin also had broken his right hand two weeks earlier, but he had continued to play. The damaged knee, however, wouldn’t let him do that.
“It was difficult,” Martin recalls of dealing with the injury. “It was the first time I missed spring ball and then coming off of it I started every game (in 2014) but I wasn’t 100 percent. There wasn’t any hesitation but there was some (physical) limitations at some points. The confidence was always there though.”
As evidenced by being named one of five captains this season, Martin, along with senior Sheldon Day, became the 20th and 21st different players to be two-time captains in the history of the Irish football program after each served in the same role the previous year. Martin also followed in the footsteps of older brother Zack (a captain during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns), making the duo the first pair of brothers to serve as team captains for more than one season. Besides Bob Golic (1978) and Mike Golic Sr. (1984), they also are the only other pair of brothers to be named captains in the program's history. For Martin, the role has natural tendencies but also ones he picked up from Zack.
“As you mature I think (being a leader) comes naturally,” Martin says. “It’s not forced. But I also think it develops after having a chance to learn from a lot of good leaders, including my brother who taught me to be consistent. Leading is not always being that guy out front yelling and making noise either. It’s when you don’t think people are watching what you’re doing, whether it’s the right thing on or off the field. It’s kind of one of those things too.
“Plus there's a sense of pride in being a captain. Not only are you representing your teammates but everyone in the program that’s come before you. Notre Dame is a special place and there were a lot of people here before me. Then as a captain you’re one of those people who is looked to.”
Despite a mix of veterans and youth, the offensive line has jelled to become an Irish strength in 2015. Martin is the elder statesman simply by being a fifth-year senior in addition to 24 starts prior to this year. Senior tackle Ronnie Stanley had 26 starts while junior guard Steve Elmer brought 17 to the table. Guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey, both sophomores, did not play in 2014 as true freshmen. Except for a two-game stint in which Nelson sat out with a sprained ankle, this quintet has had a stronghold on offensive starts this season.
Despite some personnel changes early on - quarterback Malik Zaire, running back Tarean Folston and tight end Durham Smythe, in particular on offense, were all lost to season-ending injuries - Martin insists it doesn't affect the line’s ability to do their job and do it well.
“It does not change anything,” says Martin who said there was no question that he would be back for a fifth year. “We’re fortunate that (Irish head coach Brian Kelly) has been here for a long time and that people he’s recruited are recruited for this system. The mantra is next man in, and we’re expected to go in and make plays regardless of who is playing.”
Martin will once again follow in his big brother’s footsteps, wading into the NFL draft pool in the spring. No one can know where the younger Martin might land, but it’s not unrealistic to think the formidable pair could wind up playing together again at some point in the future. But there’s still business to take care of and, although Martin is conscious of the fact that his time at Notre Dame is winding down, he prefers to keep it in the back of his mind.
“I sort of block it out,” Martin says. “We still have (part of the season) left. But I will say that since I’ve graduated and this is the last semester I’ll be here that it’s definitely crossed my mind. The tradition and being part of the O-line here … it’s been an honor to play with everyone on this team. It’s such a special team.”