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November 30, 2013

Hegarty completes long road back

Matt Hegarty got back to normal last weekend. For the first time in his college career he was more offensive lineman than medical marvel.

When Notre Dame boarded the team plane for its regular season finale a year ago, Hegarty was between the stroke he suffered on Nov. 8 and the surgery he’d undergo in mid-December to repair two previously undetected holes in his heart. Now he’ll be the starting Irish center on Saturday night against Stanford and the nation’s third-ranked rush defense.

“There was a window there where we were not certain whether he was going to be able to play again,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “It was clearly one of those operations that we were not certain.” 

Those questions belie the confidence Hegarty showed last weekend when starting center Nick Martin went down for the season late in the first quarter against BYU.

Hegarty jumped off the sideline and began taking snaps with quarterback Tommy Rees. Left guard Chris Watt tried to powwow with Hegarty about the blitz packages coming his way. Hegarty barely needed the direction.

The Irish finished with a season-high 47 rushing attempts in rolling to 235 yards on the ground in the 23-13 victory on Senior Day. Rees didn’t get sacked once.

“You have times when you try and wonder where you fit in,” Hegarty said. “I think the biggest thing is just being able to have persistence and knowing that eventually opportunity will show its face. You don’t know when it will come, you just have to have faith that it will come eventually.”

Opportunity will remain in Hegarty’s left-handed grasp for at least another two games with Martin out long-term. How the center performs against the Cardinal may dictate how long the junior remains in the lineup, with a future at guard a potential option next season.

Stanford represents a high bar for Hegarty to clear considering the Cardinal have allowed 249 yards rushing in their previous five games combined. The average rush allowed during that stretch is 1.87 yards. Take out the longest rush of UCLA, Oregon State, Oregon, USC and Cal and the average rush allowed by Stanford over that five-game stretch drops to 0.98 yards per carry.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Hegarty said. “I guess if you want to test yourself, you might as well go against Stanford.”

Hegarty’s confidence aside, Notre Dame will attempt to mitigate the center’s inexperience against Stanford’s multiple fronts that have confounded most running games and brutalized some quarterbacks. The Cardinal rank ninth nationally in sacks and have taken down the quarterback twice in nine games this season.

“They’re a little similar to BYU in that they give a lot of blitz looks that can be a little hard, especially on a center that may have his head down before the play,” Watt said. “That’s the biggest challenge, how many different looks they give. It’s not like going against Temple, which gives one look basically the entire game.

“Especially being on the road it’s sometimes hard for a center in our offense to have his head up before the play. Definitely relying on tackles and guards to be calling out certain looks, making sure we’re on the same page, that’s the biggest thing.”

Considering all Hegarty has overcome in the past year, a delayed blitz by Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov shouldn’t be that big of a deal. After being rooted to the bench for two seasons and spending the off-season recovering from heart surgery, Hegarty’s faith in football has him on the verge of turning his feel good story into a football tale.

“When I think about the people that I play for and you just think about them and your family and the people that you don’t want to let down, iIt gives you that motivation to stay in there and keep your head in it, regardless of what’s happening at the time,” Hegarty said. “I feel it would be a waste to drop the ball at this point after the support that I’ve had in my life, it’s been incredible.”


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