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April 6, 2013

Family ties bind Irish o-line

Terry Hanratty helped lead Notre Dame to the 1966 national championship as a sophomore quarterback. Zack Martin helped lead the Fighting Irish to the national championship game in 2012 from his left tackle position.

Tying a yellow ribbon around these family trees spanning nearly five decades are junior guard Conor Hanratty and junior center Nick Martin -- the son of the legendary Irish quarterback and the younger brother of Notre Dame’s offensive line mainstay respectively.

“I was here all the time as a kid between (my dad’s) functions and games,” said Hanratty, who participated in six games on special teams for the Irish in 2012, including the last four. “We’d come to a game about once a year. It was awesome being around here. I love this place. Being able to play here is huge for me.”

For the Martins, the “roles of influence” have run the gamut. A couple of years ago, older brother Zack was trying to convince younger brother Nick to follow in his footsteps at Notre Dame. A couple of years later, Nick hoped that Zack would come back for a fifth year so they could, potentially, start on the same offensive line together.

“I was definitely hoping for it and we would talk about it,” said Nick of Zack’s decision to return for the 2013 season. “I could tell he was leaning to stay. It was like when he was trying to get me to come here. He wasn’t pushing me toward anything, but he wanted me to come here. It’s kind of along those same lines.”

Of course, family ties are one thing, but it comes down to earning it on the field. As the Irish approach the halfway point of spring drills, Martin and Hanratty have been relative constants on an offensive line that includes the older Martin, veteran left guard Chris Watt, and right tackle Christian Lombard, all three of which started every game for the Irish last season.

But with the departure of center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic, Jr., it was time for the Irish to turn the page up front, and the legacies have emerged.

“No. 1, they’re stronger,” said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand of Martin and Hanratty. “The work they did in the weight room, you can see another year of time and putting in the effort with Paul (Longo), which translates into better play.

“The second thing is their fundamentals. They understand what we want from them now. It’s repetition as opposed to learning. Instead of learning what the fundamental is or what the technique is, you understand it and now you’re just getting the reps at it and trying to perfect it. That’s the stage they’re in. I’m pleased with their progress. They’re right on schedule with where I would expect them to be at this point.”

Martin’s schedule has been a bit more complicated by the fact that after playing guard and tackle his first two years in the program, he was asked to make the transition to center. Many times, such a transition is an uncomfortable fit. For Martin, it feels like home.

“It’s probably my natural position,” said Martin, who began working on shotgun snaps in November of last season. “Being in the middle and making the calls, I think I’ve adapted pretty well. Obviously, I have a long way to go. There are a lot of things I need to learn. I’ve got to get in the film room to figure things out. I need to watch other centers and become a better student of the game. I need to clean up some footwork stuff and get my angles and everything. But snapping the ball wasn’t too difficult to pick up on.”

Junior Matt Hegarty, who has had to overcome serious health issues since last fall to put himself in the running, is pushing Martin. Hanratty’s battle isn’t necessarily against other guards on the roster. Rather, if a tackle such as Ronnie Stanley or Steve Elmer emerges, that could bump Lombard down from right tackle to right guard if one of those two is deemed one of the five best offensive linemen on the team.

“Nothing is etched in stone in the spring,” Hanratty said. “It’s all about getting the work in and getting used to playing with the other guys. That’s all that’s important right now. It’s all about getting better right now.”

Hanratty made a significant move between his senior year in high school and his first year at Notre Dame. Recruited by the likes of Stanford, Wisconsin and Boston College - programs that regularly churn out top-notch offensive linemen - Hanratty re-shaped his body with the help of personal trainer Bill Hayden, and put himself in much better position to make a run at a starting spot sooner rather than later in his career.

“I was in need of a weightlifting and conditioning program,” said Hanratty, who is now a well-put-together 6-foot-4 ½, 309 pounds and enters the 2013 season with three years of eligibility. “That’s one of the challenges of transitioning from high school football to Notre Dame. You’re in the big leagues now and you’ve got to look the part. Coach Longo did a great job with his plan and it helped me get in shape.”

Listed at 284 this spring, Martin hopes to play in the 295-pound range this fall, which is small by today’s standards. But Hiestand has worked with undersized centers before, namely, Chicago Bears standout Olin Kreutz. You don’t have to be massive to be effective.

“You can’t be what you’re not,” said Martin, who has the advantage of going against 347-pound Louis Nix III during spring drills. “If you’re lighter, you have to become good at different things. You have to be more fundamentally sound. There are old tricks to learn to help supplement you not being as big as other people.

“Offensive line is all about consistency. Everyone is going to have good plays and bad plays, and the more consistent you are, the better off you are. At the end of the day, it’s not about how big you are, but how well you play.”

Part of Martin’s duties include adapting to making line calls, a job that Cave handled for the better part of four seasons.

“I was just watching film with coach earlier and he said, ‘You’re seeing it, which is good,’” Martin said. “It comes back to being a student of the game. Watching film is important because week to week, it’s different. But it also helps having Chris Watt and Zack Martin on the line next to you. Coach always talks about five guys seeing things out of one set of eyes.”

Hanratty says he kept his eyes averted during the recruiting process a couple of years ago, but his gaze kept leading him back to Notre Dame.

“When (Notre Dame) offered me, I was ecstatic, but I didn’t let my previous ties with the school come into play with my decision,” Hanratty said. “I still shopped around and took my visits, and when it came down to it, this remained the best choice for me.”

Hanratty said his father attends all the home games and made all the road trips in ’12 except Oklahoma and USC. If the younger Hanratty makes his way into the starting lineup this fall, that should mean some significant face time for the former Irish quarterback many years after making multiple Super Bowl runs with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Said Hanratty of the TV time his dad could receive this fall: “Oh, he’ll love that.”

Son (Hanratty) and brother (Martin) should have a lot more to talk about this fall.





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