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November 21, 2013

Never say never again

Nick Martin was a tackle at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. He figured he wouldn’t continue playing that position at Kentucky, where he initially verbally committed, nor at Notre Dame, where he eventually signed.

After preserving a year of eligibility in 2011, and bouncing between tackle and guard in 2012, he assumed his future was at one of the two spots immediately flanking the center.

Then came the spring of 2013 when offensive line coach Harry Hiestand handed him the football. What do you think about playing center, son? Sure, coach, whatever you want, but there’s one small problem.

“Nope, not at all, never,” smiled Martin of his background as a center. “Last spring was my first time snapping the ball -- ever. I knew I probably wasn’t going to end up being a tackle. Probably guard, but I never thought I’d be a center.”

Not only is Martin a center today, but he’s about to become the center of attention on Notre Dame’s offensive line once left tackle Zack Martin, his big brother, and left guard Chris Watt, one of his mentors, play their final three games in a Notre Dame uniform over the next month or so.

“The first couple of practices definitely took me getting used to, but it just kind of became my natural position,” said Martin, who has started all 10 games for the Irish at center. “I love it and I think it worked out well.

“I feel like I understand the game of football much better. Coach Hiestand coaches me up and I try to take whatever knowledge he can give me to the field. I really have learned a lot.”

Two Saturdays ago, Martin learned something else: how to play center with a broken right (snap) hand against one of the best defensive tackles in the country. Early in the second quarter against Pittsburgh, although he doesn’t remember a specific play, something gave.

“When you’re out there and your adrenaline is pumping pretty good, you don’t think about it much,” Martin said. “I finished out the second quarter and I could feel it after that little break at halftime. I went to the trainers and they taped my two fingers together.

“The next morning is when the swelling came in. Our (training) staff -- Rob Hunt, Dustin (Melvin), (Mike) Bean -- they’re unbelievable. They got on it right away. I was in treatment right away, two times a day. I have a hard splint, but no cast.”

His offensive line cohorts acknowledged his toughness for playing through the injury, which is a break on the outside of his right hand below the pinky finger.

“It’s pretty common for us to jam our fingers,” said brother Zack. “He thought he’d just jammed his pinky up pretty bad. After the game, he showed us and it was all swollen. He’s one of the toughest guys I know. He’ll be fine the rest of the year.”

“Him being able to play through that really shows his toughness level and want-to as far as getting his job done,” said Watt, who played the Pittsburgh game with a torn PCL in his right knee.

Martin has benefited from the bye week, but the time off didn’t come until after he’d spent more than a half of football contending with Pittsburgh All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“He’s a great player,” said Martin of Donald. “We had a great plan and I think him and the two inside guys had about three tackles, so we did pretty well handling him.

“When it comes to a good player, you’ve just got to be sound in your technique. Every person you go against, you have to have good technique, but it’s really important going against a good player like that every snap.”

It’s been a whirlwind experience for the former tackle/guard.

“Going against a three-down and four-down mix in camp helped a lot,” Martin said. “You see both sides of things. Each week, it really is something new. You’ve got to study film a lot. We get a great look from our scout team. Playing next to Zack and Watt has been unbelievable, a pleasure, especially with my brother. They’ve taught me a lot.

“I think I’ve gotten better. Playing every game, you definitely see things you didn’t see before. You have to learn from the game, you have to learn from what you’ve previously done through experience and film study. Coach Hiestand has helped me a lot with that.”

When the bowl game concludes, some time in late December/early January, Martin and fifth-year senior candidate Christian Lombard will become the elder statesmen of the unit, along with red-shirt freshman Ronnie Stanley who, like both Martin brothers, has started every game this season. Current true freshman Steve Elmer is now the new kid on the block.

“Awareness,” said Martin of what he’ll take into the 2014 season. “Having a year under my belt and having played every team on our schedule, I definitely know what the competition and speed are going to be like.

“Obviously I was here for two years before that and I practiced. But actually being out there, I have experience and know what to expect. I just have to go and play my game.”

Broken hand or no broken hand.

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