Notre Dame Football: Harry Hiestand

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It's been familiar ground after different paths for two of Notre Dame's newest additions this spring.

Graduate assistants are hardly positions of glory, but the Irish know they have the benefit of credibility with newcomers Mike Hiestand and Kyle McCarthy helping out the coaching staff.

Hiestand is the son of current offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. McCarthy graduated from Notre Dame in 2009 before spending time at safety with the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders.

McCarthy has spent plenty of time working with the Irish secondary. Given his college and NFL experience, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been able to rely on him plenty so far.

"I can lean all over him -- he's a graduate assistant," VanGorder quipped. "He's very bright, very bright. … Kyle brings a really good perspective I think to the game, good knowledge, and he's done a very good job."

Added Brian Kelly: "He's really a guy that can be a full-time coach. And that's hard to do. Look, just because you played in the NFL doesn't mean that that translates into being a good coach, a good teacher. Because that's what we are, we're teachers and educators. He just has a really good way about him and his ability to communicate and teach is a trait that he just naturally has. He loves the game. He really enjoys being around the players and so he carries that with him every single day.

"So he can stand in front of the group and he has immediate credibility as a Notre Dame football player, a captain and a guy who played in the NFL. But you need even more than that, and you have to be able to do a great job of teaching, and he does a really good job of teaching."

Hiestand played linebacker at Illinois State before working as a GA at Miami (Ohio) and FIU. His father recalled many conversations between the two about the game, with the son always making sure to take notes everywhere he went. Harry said Mike would even ask him for notebooks from some of his previous coaching stops.

"It's great for me, because I know he has a passion for it," Harry said of having Mike on staff. "I always knew that. I never pushed him toward it -- his mother can't believe he's doing it.

"But he's always had a real, real desire to do this, and when Coach [Kelly] talked to him about the opportunity, I knew without saying anything to Coach that he'd really be good at it. Just because I knew how passionate he is about football. He's always been that way."

New faces must step up as spring opens

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly got into his car on Friday morning and saw that the outside temperature was minus-8 degrees -- as if there was any doubt Notre Dame would be indoors on Monday when the Irish commence Kelly's fifth spring here.

What he will see, though, are more new faces in new places than he probably has during his Irish tenure. And he's anxious to see who rises up from a team that said early goodbyes to three juniors after the 2013 season and welcomes two new staff members.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly is looking for some new faces to step forward in the spring.
"In an ideal world you'd want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "Sometimes that's not the case, so you observe daily and find out who those guys are and you try to cultivate those individuals. I think with this group in '14 our best players can be our best leaders and they may not all be seniors. I think we've got some great seniors, I think all of our seniors are committed, but we may have some great underclassmen who are great leaders, too."

The additions of assistants Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks) and Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator) have given the staff more flexibility as well, as Kelly said Friday that Kerry Cooks will now coach the entire secondary, not just the cornerbacks, while Bob Elliott will move from safeties coach to outside linebackers coach. Kelly also added graduate assistants in former NFL fullback Ryan Mahaffey (offense), former Irish safety Kyle McCarthy (defense) and Mike Hiestand (defense), son of current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As for switches on the field: Matthias Farley has moved from safety to corner, John Turner has gone from safety to outside linebacker, James Onwualu has moved from receiver to safety, Will Mahone has moved from running back to receiver, and Amir Carlisle is now a runner and a receiver. Everett Golson, meanwhile, has returned at a listed 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier from his listed playing weight from 2012.

Personnel notes: Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Devin Butler (shoulder) are out for spring. … Nick Martin (MCL) and Ben Councell (ACL) will be limited to non-contact. … Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Doug Randolph (all shoulders) are good to go. … Receiver Luke Massa will not return for a fifth season after initially planning to come back. Kelly said Massa had received a job offer that was too good to pass up.

Kelly on Shembo: Kelly addressed Prince Shembo's comments during last weekend's NFL combine, when the former Irish linebacker said the coach told him not to talk in school about the the Lizzy Seeberg investigation.

"That was a collaborative decision," Kelly said Friday. "I don't make any decisions independent when it comes to major decisions at this university. The head football coach works in concert with our administration, so we made a decision based upon the information that we had that we felt it was in Prince's best interest that this was not a matter that needed to be discussed, but that was certainly something that he could've decided to discuss. We didn't threaten him with, he couldn't play or we were going to put him on the bench or throw him out of school. It was still his decision. But talking to his parents and talking to Prince we felt because of the information that we had in front of us that it was a matter that be left alone at the time."

Recapping Friday's 'The Echoes'

December, 16, 2013
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Brian Kelly's bigger workload was on display already Friday night, when the Notre Dame head coach presented not one, not two, not three, but four different awards during the Irish's awards banquet, named "The Echoes" for the second straight year.

He did say on Saturday, however, that he does not expect any more of his assistants to leave, and that was seemingly confirmed shortly afterward by defensive line coach Mike Elston, whose first-ever tweet was the announcement he's staying at Notre Dame. (There had been some chatter that he could follow Bob Diaco to UConn to become the Huskies' defensive coordinator.)

As for the awards show, TJ Jones took home team MVP honors in a team vote that Kelly said wasn't even close. (Yours truly had predicted Jones as the winner beforehand, just as he had predicted the correct final score of the Stanford game.)

Jones easily took home best-dressed honors on the night, wearing a burgundy suit with a bowtie and some hipster glasses. Corey Robinson and Chris Watt were among the bowtie-wearers as well.

The biggest news, or non-news, of the night came when Stephon Tuitt met with the media afterward, saying he remains undecided on his future.

As for the big winners on Friday...
There was also in-show fan voting for best hit and best catch honors, which went to Tuitt and Jones for their plays against USC.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- What could have been a disaster turned out to be an offensive lineman's dream.

A season-high of 47 rushing attempts will create the latter. Having to pound it like that while down two starting blockers will make the former a legitimate possible outcome.

And with a test against the nation's No. 3 rushing defense on-deck, what will emerge next probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.

It doesn't get much more difficult for Notre Dame's front than it will this Saturday at Stanford, which concedes just 89.5 yards per game on the ground. Complicating matters is the loss of Nick Martin, thanks to a season-ending left knee injury suffered in the first frame of Senior Day.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Matt Hegarty
Tommy Grealy/Icon SMICenter Matt Hegarty filled in for the injured Nick Martin on Saturday and the Irish O-line didn't miss a beat, rushing for 235 yards against BYU.
But with southpaw Matt Hegarty snapping the rest of the way, the Irish marched toward 235 rushing yards, their second-best output of the season. And they kept Tommy Rees unscathed for the fifth time this year.

"It was kind of an offensive lineman's dream today, with the wind and running the ball," left tackle Zack Martin said after beating BYU. "So we wanted to kind of impose our will on them in the snow. It was kind of a nice little ending there."

The Irish are now 20-0 in their last 20 games when attempting at least 30 rushes, according to Irish Illustrated. Perhaps more noteworthy is the job they have done protecting Rees, who has been sacked just seven times this season, tied for the second-lowest mark in the nation.

The Cardinal will present a challenge in that department, too, as they are tied for sixth nationally with 34 sacks. But pass-rushing mammoths have brought out the best of Notre Dame, which is the only team to have held nation-leader Aaron Donald (26) of Pitt without a tackle for loss. The Irish protected their real estate this past weekend against BYU's Kyle Van Noy (15 TFLs) as well.

Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy enters the regular-season finale atop the nation in sacks (13) and tied for fourth with 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

"I think it could be an absolute disaster, right, if you think about the entire right side as well as missing Chris Watt for a game," coach Brian Kelly said of the offensive line. "You're talking about three and four different guys going in there on the offensive line at times, and Coach [Harry] Hiestand has done an incredible job of putting this together as a unit. I'll go back to their summer workouts where they stayed together as a unit during the summer and really worked hard together, and I think that unit mentality has really served us well."

Steve Elmer, who has split time at right guard with Conor Hanratty since back surgery shut Christian Lombard down last month, is less than a year removed from high school. Hegarty, meanwhile, is barely a year removed from a ministroke.

Fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side will likely be tasked with recognizing pressures and conveying calls to Hegarty. But against the Cougars, at least, the newcomer blended in without incident.

"Any time you can have a strong running game and get some play-action going, it helps those guys up front," Rees said. "Zack's talking, it's the offensive line's dream to have a game like that. [The] offensive line has been awesome all year. Critical passing downs I was able to get through, back to my fourth progression and make some great plays down the field, and it all starts with them. I told them at halftime, Keep controlling the line of scrimmage, it starts with you guys and we are going to close this one out."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tommy Rees and Chris Watt live together at Notre Dame, so the quarterback was sure to give the left guard heat when it looked like something as minor as a PCL tear would sideline one of the signal caller's anchors and best friends.

"You can ask him. I constantly tell him he's limping on the wrong leg or milking it," Rees said. "I always ask him, 'Which leg is it again?' Trying to prompt him to mess up."

It was the right leg, to be clear. And it did, in fact, end up keeping Watt out of the Nov. 2 game against Navy, before he returned the following week at Pitt.

[+] EnlargeChris Watt
Robin Alam/Icon SMIChris Watt had played in 47 straight games, including 30 straight starts, before sitting out the Nov. 2 game against Navy with an injury.
"Yeah, he's been doing that," Watt said of Rees. "Telling me to go buy some milk, things like that. But it's all in good fun."

But such ribbing has the exception to the rule, underscoring just how fortunate and proactive Watt has been with his body. The same goes for Watt's sidekick and fellow roommate Zack Martin, too.

Watt and Martin have been bedrocks up front for the Irish, fifth-year seniors who have started for three-plus years on the left side of the offensive line. They have been through Senior Day before, though this Saturday against BYU will mark their official finales at Notre Dame Stadium.

The continuity has been a point of pride for the linemen, with Watt saying that one of the hardest things he has had to do in college was telling offensive line coach Harry Hiestand before the game against the Midshipmen that he would not be able to go. That marked the first contest either Watt or Martin had missed in college. Watt had played in 47 straight games before that, starting in the last 30. Martin, meanwhile, has started every single game since redshirting in his freshman season of 2009 -- 47 of the 49 at left tackle -- and he will break the school record for career starts if he starts these final three games.

"They have really shown those young players what it takes as a unit, as a group, in the weight room, in the practice field, and how to stick together as a group," coach Brian Kelly said. "Now on the field, consistency of performance. So they've got two seniors there that have really set a high bar for everybody else to follow."

Other linemen have come and gone -- Notre Dame has seen a grand total of six players start at the other three offensive line positions these last three seasons, with two of them, Christian Lombard and Mike Golic Jr., starting in multiple spots. But Martin and Watt have been the heartbeat of the offensive line for much of the Kelly era.

The duo has become so in-sync over the years that Martin seemingly spoke on behalf of Watt several weeks ago when talking about Watt's injured knee, saying that he himself could feel it improving based on some practice reps together.

"When we're working combination blocks it's either I'm setting it up for him or he's setting a block up for me, so I can definitely feel it," Martin said. "If he's setting one up for me I can definitely feel the difference with a full strength [knee]."

Martin laughed when asked how long it took to develop such synergy, saying he did not know. Taking care of their bodies in hopes of being in that position certainly does not hurt.

"They've learned to eat better along the way. They've also trained hard in the offseason," said Keith Martin, Zack's father. "Oftentimes that prevents injuries. I'm not saying it's 100 percent, but they've learned throughout the years to not just take care of your bodies during the season, but [that] how you prepare during the offseason is important."

Martin and Watt put in extra work this summer with the five-man freshman class of offensive linemen in hopes of accelerating their growth. Martin, the program's 18th two-time captain, said the work ethic has been hard to avoid throughout his career, as he credited his father, a former Kentucky defensive lineman, for instilling the mantra in him.

Zack and his brother, center Nick Martin, said they have never missed a game at any level, though Zack got lucky with the timing of an ankle injury in last year's regular-season finale at USC and Nick is currently playing through a broken hand suffered in his last outing, Nov. 9.

Nick joked that their father had claimed "he had broken something supposedly and played through it" in college, with Keith clarifying that he had played through foot and pectoral injuries during his career 30 years ago.

The durability of Notre Dame's left side has not gone unnoticed, especially by the man whose security has been affected most by this run of reliability.

"Zack and Watt have been doing it for a long time on the left side for us, and to play in the trenches like that and -- knock on wood -- be healthy for as long as they have is unbelievable," Rees said. "When you have that kind of consistency and familiarity up there it makes the whole offense go, and it really helps some of our younger offensive linemen who haven't played feel confident and know they have guys to turn to."
Zack MartinRobin Alam/Icon SMISenior tackle Zack Martin became only the 18th two-time captain in Notre Dame history.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Six weeks away from the season, Zack Martin saw a way that he could help his team. This would require cutting out sweets and soda from his diet. This would cost him 10-15 pounds. But this would make him a more versatile threat, as he could start as a two-way lineman and soak up more knowledge of a game that, by most standards, he seemingly already had mastered.

This was also in fifth or sixth grade, when Martin was hoping to slide under the weight limit for defensive players at St. Matthew in Indianapolis.

"I said, 'Hey, let your body do what it needs to do,' " his father, Keith Martin, recalled. "He felt like that was important to him and ultimately the team's success. He took that on himself and said, 'Hey this is what I need to do.' "

Roughly a dozen years have gone by, and all that has happened since is 39 consecutive starts at left tackle for Notre Dame, where, on Thursday, Martin became only the 18th two-time captain in program history. He shoved away NFL riches to return to a unit that has named him its top performer for three years running. He now lines up each day next to his best friend, Chris Watt, and his younger brother, Nick Martin, the Irish's new starting center. And he heads a deeper, more mature group -- one that benefited from countless hours of overtime spent chaperoning rookies to and from classes and workouts this summer, an initiative head coach Brian Kelly described by saying: "Doesn't happen. That just does not happen."

Zack Martin saw a way that he could help his team. So Zack Martin went about doing just that.

"The best leader I've ever been around is Olin Kreutz from the Bears, and Zack's in that category," said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, formerly of the NFL, referencing the six-time Pro Bowler. "Zack's in that conversation. Zack brings it every day."

Before the summer, Martin and Watt talked about getting the five-man freshman class of linemen more involved. The fifth-year seniors thought back to their initial semesters on campus, wishing that they could have had the ice broken for them sooner.

So following 3:30 p.m. workouts each day, Martin and the rest of the regulars made it a point to stick around the football complex for upward of 90 minutes, waiting to integrate the newcomers trickling in for their 5 p.m. weight-lifting sessions.

"We'd be pretty much at the Gug from 3:30 till like 7 every day," Watt said, referring to the Guglielmino Athetics Complex.

The accelerated learning curve has paid early dividends, as freshman Steve Elmer and redshirt freshman Ronnie Stanley have seen reps with the first team throughout camp, with Kelly saying that both will see some time this fall one way or another.

"Making them as prepared as possible," Martin said. "They're talented, and we know that they're going to have an opportunity to help us, if not this year, then they're going to be the guys in the future. So anything we can help when coach Hiestand can't be there, we'll do."

Nick Martin admires the consistent example that Zack sets every day, but he can be forgiven for taking a little longer than most to embrace his brother's demanding ways. The youngest of three Martins -- the oldest, 24-year-old Josh, played at Div. II Indianapolis -- Nick grew up often bearing the brunt of being the last in line, be it from friends Zack would bring home after school or even from Zack himself.

But 6-foot-4½, 295-pound redshirt sophomore has come a long way since the days of Zack mercilessly unleashing "the typewriter" on him without fair warning. (Picture one person pinning another down while repeatedly poking him in the chest.) Nick, whose growth spurt did not come until his junior year of high school -- two years later than Zack -- spent his first two years at Notre Dame working all over the line in a reserve role before emerging as the Irish's top option at center this past spring.

The two are now separated by a mere 13 pounds. (Nick is actually a half-inch taller.) Strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo said that when watching the offensive linemen run this summer, he saw "610 pounds of Martins running 15 yards in front of anybody else side by side."

"Very similar," Longo said of the brothers. "Obviously there's not much of a difference between the two; that's a good thing, because that means we'll have another Martin for an extra two years."

Watt and Zack Martin have lived together throughout college, with Nick often hanging at their apartment to make it a family affair. Keith Martin joked that Nick is the little brother that Watt never had.

The camaraderie played a large role in tugging Zack Martin back for his fifth and final year.

"You could tell inside, in his gut, he wanted to come back," Nick Martin said, adding, "[He's] been starting with his best friend at left guard the last three years, too. Finishing out with him, playing with me -- I think in the end he knew what he wanted to do."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Matt Hegarty was about to put his pads on before a Nov. 8 practice when he forgot what he was going to say to fellow lineman Conor Hanratty. Perplexed, he wondered if he had gotten enough sleep the night before.

"It was just a really confusing day, honestly," Hegarty said. "You wake up, go to class, you write notes in your book just like you normally do, and then it kind of does a 180 on you."

The writing and speaking were temporarily halted, and breathing was uneasy. He approached Notre Dame head athletic trainer Rob Hunt. Stroke symptoms were detected, and Hegarty soon found himself in the hospital. Less than 24 hours later, doctors determined that Hegarty had two previously undetected holes in his heart -- adding up to roughly an inch in missing tissue -- which caused a ministroke that shelved any thoughts of contributing to a national title chase and set in motion a spring comeback and a chase at a starting job.

Six whirlwind months later, Hegarty's last hurdle to climb is the depth chart, where he chased Nick Martin this spring for a shot at the Irish's starting center job.

"It's a big event in your life," Hegarty said of the ministroke. "And as much as you try to not think about it, you want to push on and think about, 'What's the next step?' I've got to take care of this final. I've got to write this paper. I've got to go to this doctor and visit.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Matt Hegarty
Tommy Grealy/Icon SMICenter Matt Hegarty filled in for the injured Nick Martin on Saturday and the Irish O-line didn't miss a beat, rushing for 235 yards against BYU.
"It kind of creeps in a little bit on you. I think the best part is getting back to business and going out there doing practice, doing everything that I normally do and seeing that everything's back to normal. I don't have anything to worry about."

Hegarty met with an occupational speech therapist after the episode. On Dec. 14, Dr. Ronald Nelson went up his thigh with a catheter to patch the holes in Hegarty's heart. Not long after, Hunt, the trainer, had Hegarty using an elliptical machine until he could resume weight-lifting, which he was eventually cleared to do in February, a hurdle he considered among the most significant.

"You kind of find yourself in the weight room, and I was able to find myself," Hegarty said. "Get back in there, you're throwing weight around, you're like, 'All right, it's back to business.' I felt great, it's what I do. Back to normal."

The new normal for Hegarty contains a greater sense of appreciation, but doctors told him that the heart repair has also given him up to 20 percent more oxygen in his bloodstream.

"Matt likes to say, 'I am 20 percent better than before, but it was a heck of a way to get better,' " his father, Bryan, said.

Hegarty is off the Plavax and Coumadin he was initially prescribed, now just taking a baby aspirin until June and possibly in the future before he travels long distances.

With the initial scares and most difficult obstacles now shoved to the side, Bryan Hegarty has looked at the timing of the ordeal that his son faced as a blessing.

Yes, Hegarty had to be shut down for the stretch run of a season that ended in the Discover BCS National Championship, but the recovery process allowed for a return to spring ball and a seemingly clean slate, with a first-team spot open in the middle of the line for the Aztec, N.M., native.

"Very foreign," Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said of dealing with Hegarty's injury. "And I think that the scary thing is just the unknown. You understand elbow, you understand a knee, you understand an ankle, you understand shoulders -- you don't have much experience with a guy's heart and issues there.

"But when you're around him, you see his attitude about it and the smile on his face and the determination on his face. You kind of shake it off: 'Hey, let's go to work.' That's what you want, to be the best we can. The way he's handled it and his approach to things is just outstanding."

For Christmas, Bryan Hegarty gave Matt a copy of former NFL player and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi's book, "Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery and My Return to the NFL," a memoir that helped fast-track Hegarty mentally.

His father said that it had initially taken the 6-foot-4.5, 291-pound third-year junior about a month to get over the fact that something like this could happen to him.

"When you're young, you're invincible. What's hard about this thing is it wasn't like an MCL tear, because you don't feel it," Bryan Hegarty said, referring to a prep injury Matt had suffered. "My wife used to be a therapist, so she has a good way of talking to Matt."

Back on the Loftus Sports Center practice field this spring, Hegarty's biggest concerns were dealing with Louis Nix and the rest of Notre Dame's relentless defensive line, a different but welcome dose of anxiety that is as sure a sign as any that the converted tackle's toughest battles are behind him.

"It takes two," head coach Brian Kelly said. "His family was involved. Really from a consensus standpoint, everybody was on the same page with this kind of serious condition. He had the best doctors. He had great followup. He took care of himself. I just think it was everybody pulling in the right direction to get him back on the field, where he feels very, very confident that he can go every single day and not have to worry about his health."
Notre Dame returns to the practice field Wednesday morning after a week off for the Easter holiday. Five sessions are in the bag and 10 remain, including the April 20 Blue-Gold spring game.

Like every team every season, the Irish are welcoming new faces in several new places. Among the biggest for the program heading into the 2013 season are at running back, center and Mike linebacker.

Here is a look at how those battles are shaping up as spring practice No. 6 takes place today.

RUNNING BACK
[+] EnlargeGeorge Atkinson III
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIrish coaches have talked up George Atkinson III in the chase for playing time at running back.
This is, frankly, a blanket term for a backfield that will likely feature more than one person at a time throughout much of the coming season. But the Irish did lose their top two rushers in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and with (at least) a strong left side of the offensive line returning, it will be interesting to see how the unit shakes out. Rising junior George Atkinson III has the most experience among returners, and head coach Brian Kelly and position coach Tony Alford have been high on him so far this spring, praising his weight training (he's up seven pounds, to 217) and ability to catch the ball in the slot. Can Atkinson be the typical 20-carries-per-game, between-the-tackles back? Will it matter? USC transfer Amir Carlisle also drew plenty of praise in the same role this spring before the rising redshirt sophomore suffered a broken collarbone March 23. Rising junior Cam McDaniel and rising redshirt freshman William Mahone are back there as well, and the program will welcome in talented prospects Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston this summer, at least one of whom may be primed to make an immediate impact.

From Brett Perotta of the ESPN Stats & Information blog, citing seven signees in college football who will make an immediate impact in 2013:
RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame

Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, leaving a vacancy in the backfield and over 300 carries to go around. Bryant is the first top-10 running back the Irish have signed since James Aldridge in 2006. Notre Dame posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season and will return three starters on the offensive line. With returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson, Bryant should have plenty of room to work.
CENTER
So much of how Notre Dame's offensive line shakes out will depend on this position battle. With fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt back manning the left side of the line, and with redshirt junior Christian Lombard seemingly back for Year 2 as the starting right tackle, the Irish need to identify Braxston Cave's successor in the middle. Redshirt sophomore Nick Martin, Zack's younger brother, was running with the first team during the start of the first spring practice, March 20, and figures to have the inside track there right now. Nick Martin served as something of a utility man on the second-team line throughout last season. Redshirt sophomore Matt Hegarty, cleared following a November mini-stroke that threatened his football career, should give Martin a push here as well. Right guard is the other open position battle, and if Kelly or position coach Harry Hiestand deem tackle sophomore Ronnie Stanley or early enrollee Steve Elmer ready, there is always the chance that Lombard could slide to right guard.

MIKE LINEBACKER
Jarrett Grace was talked about a lot last spring by the coaching staff but, frankly, just was not needed so much in 2012. Not with Manti Te'o having the kind of season he had, recording seven interceptions en route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign that saw him rarely leave the field. Now that position is vacant following three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, and Grace, a redshirt sophomore, has the inside track to take over inside. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is capable of playing both inside positions, and fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese has resumed his role as the Will linebacker after splitting duties there with Fox the past two seasons. No one should expect anything resembling Te'o's All-America-type run from the position so soon, but with starters, and depth, returning at every other linebacker spot, the Mike is the position to keep an eye on during the offseason.
Today's player is another multi-year starter who is expected to return for a fifth and final season.

No. 18: Chris Watt, LG

Making the case: A year after beating out Andrew Nuss for the starting left guard spot, Watt became an anchor on an offensive line that paved the way for seven different 200-yard rushing games, as he started all 13 games for the second straight season. The Irish surrendered just 28 sacks on the season and, after giving up seven over the first two games of the season, allowed just 11 over the final 11 games. The line was instrumental in bringing along new quarterback Everett Golson, as the two gradually got on the same page communication-wise, and it grew under new position coach Harry Hiestand. Watt was a big part of that, and his expected return in 2013 will give the Irish a very good left side up front, with Zack Martin back as well.

Preseason ranking: 18

The countdown

No. 19 George Atkinson III, RB

No. 20: Dan Fox, LB

No. 21 Matthias Farley, S

No. 22 KeiVarae Russell, CB

No. 23 Robby Toma, WR

No. 24 Kyle Brindza, K

No. 25 Chris Brown, WR
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Chuck Martin pleaded ignorance Friday when asked about Alabama's offensive line. The Notre Dame offensive coordinator only sees the Tide's top-ranked rushing defense -- and he has little to add to the growing narrative that the Alabama offensive line his Irish will face in Monday's Discover BCS National Championship is among the best in college football history.

"I'd say our offensive line is much more concerned with Alabama's very good defensive line," Martin said. "I would say we probably don't know a lot about what's been written about Alabama's offensive line. They’ve got their own set of issues dealing with the big boys on the other side of the ball."

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Chuck Martin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin's line has steadily improved since struggling in the home opener against Purdue.
For the Irish's front, that will be one final challenge on its steady climb toward a perfect season.

Notre Dame surrendered five sacks in its home-opening nailbiter against Purdue. By the end of their first month of games, the Irish ranked 87th nationally rushing the ball, averaging 140.25 yards per outing.

Flash forward three months, and those numbers paint a different picture: Notre Dame has surrendered just 11 sacks in the 10 games since beating the Boilermakers, good for 28th-fewest nationally. Their rushing average has risen to 29th overall, at 202.5 yards per game.

Getting on the same page with a first-year starting quarterback in Everett Golson has been part of that surge. Getting accustomed to new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand likely has been, too.

Alabama surrenders just 79.77 rushing yards per game and 2.46 yards per carry. Notre Dame's line has paved the way for a pair of 700-plus-yard rushers in Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.

“I think collectively they will be the toughest defensive line we face," left tackle and captain Zack Martin said of the Tide. "We have played some talented players, but collectively Alabama is the most talented. They are big, physical and have guys that can stop the run. They can also get after the quarterback, so we will have to be on our game.”

“They are similar to our defense, which we see every day," he added. "They have big D-linemen who can stop the run and rush the passer. Also, Alabama has mobile linebackers who can make big plays and an active secondary, so very similar to our defense. We will have to be ready.”

Irish Lunch Links

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
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Enjoy the last weekend of 2012 ...

Recapping the Notre Dame Awards show

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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Befitting a season seemingly from the past, Notre Dame made the theme for its Friday night awards banquet "The Echoes."

Seventeen "Echoes" were handed out at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center by the entire Notre Dame staff, including the team MVP echo to Manti Te'o, who accepted the award live via satellite from atop 30 Rock in New York. Te'o was for the Heisman Trophy presentation the following night.

The highlights of the night: Matthias Farley's bowtie, Theo Riddick's Armani belt and Louis Nix's brief acceptance speech: "I'd like to thank my mom. She had a beautiful son and he's here today." The senior parents' video was a hit for the second straight year as well.

Here's a list of the night's winners:

Offensive scout team player of the year, presented by offensive GA Bill Brechin
Winner: Nick Fitzpatrick (also nominated: Bruce Heggie, William Mahone)

Defensive scout team player of the year, presented by defensive GA Josh Reardon
Winner: Tyler Stockton (also nominated: Joe Romano, Joe Schmidt)

Offensive newcomer of the year, presented by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin
Winner: Everett Golson (also nominated: DaVaris Daniels, Christian Lombard, Troy Niklas)

Defensive newcomer of the year, presented by co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks
Winner: KeiVarae Russell (also nominated: Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Danny Spond)

Irish Around the Bend award (community service), presented by director of player development and engagement Ernest Jones
Winner: Mike Golic Jr.

A-Team award (accountability, appreciation, achievement), presented by defensive line coach Mike Elston
Winner: Kapron Lewis-Moore

Count On Me award (reliable, unselfish), presented by running backs/slot receivers coach Tony Alford
Winner: Theo Riddick

Father Lange Iron Cross award, presented by strength and conditioning director Paul Longo
Winner: Braxston Cave

Special teams award, presented by tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Scott Booker
Winner: Kyle Brindza

Pietrosante award (courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication, pride), presented by outside receivers coach Mike Denbrock
Winner: John Goodman, Robby Toma

Moose Krause defensive lineman of the year, presented by assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
Winner: Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt

Offensive lineman of the year, presented by offensive line coach Harry Hiestand
Winner: Zack Martin

Rockne Student-Athlete award, presented by safeties coach Bob Elliott
Winner: Danny Spond

Next Man In award, presented by head coach Brian Kelly
Winner: Tommy Rees

Offensive player of the year, presented by Kelly
Winner: Tyler Eifert

Defensive player of the year, presented by Kelly
Winner: Zeke Motta

MVP, presented by Kelly
Winner: Manti Te'o

Growing up keeps Golson on his feet

November, 1, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson lines up behind center now and recognizes what is in front of him. He verbalizes that with his offensive linemen. And, as evidence by his breakout performance in Saturday's win at Oklahoma, the unit then usually runs much more machine-like.

It wasn't always this way for Golson, who has just six starts and seven games under his belt for 8-0 Notre Dame. Just ask some of the offensive linemen who have been tasked with helping along the new quarterback.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Everett Golson
Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIREEverett Golson passed for 177 yards and rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown against Oklahoma.
"Before we may have had to stop practice -- 'Coach, what should we be in here?' " left tackle Zack Martin said of communication breakdowns. "He'd have to look at it and be like, 'Oh.'

"Now he sees it and gets into it without anything happening."

Nothing happening means the ball is in the hands of Golson, standing upright. He can turn and give it to one of three talented running backs, he can pretend to do that -- as he did perfectly in setting up the game-changing 50-yard strike Saturday to Chris Brown -- or he can take off and run on his own, as he did 10 times for 66 yards. (He was sacked one other time, finishing with 64 rushing yards on the night.)

The Irish offense goes as Golson does, even if the numbers don't necessarily reflect that. Quarterbacks from the other five FBS unbeatens have each attempted more passes than Golson's 160, have thrown for more yards than the redshirt freshman's 1,145, and have fired more touchdown passes than his four.

"The passing game still needs to improve," head coach Brian Kelly said. "We had where we consider four, maybe five opportunities that we left out there in terms of throwing the ball. So we want to see a higher passing efficiency in that respect.

"What we need now is to put together a string of games back-to-back. I think those are the two things that we're going to ask from Everett in terms of his progress."

Golson was yanked in Notre Dame's second and fourth games and knocked out of its sixth with a concussion that forced him to miss the seventh. In between -- and especially this past Saturday -- he has shown the ability to complete the picture for the Irish as it relates to legitimate national title contention.

"Just being really smart with the ball -- getting rid of it when you need to get rid of it," center Braxston Cave said, referring to what he saw Saturday out of Golson. "He made some crucial, really great throws, getting us in the right checks, right protections. To me I'd say he definitely played his best game."

In the days after the win over the Sooners, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand approached Kelly about the communication gap Golson has bridged with the guys in charge of protecting him.

Whereas Golson's nearly 300-yard output Week 2 against Purdue was marred by five sacks, a late fumble and ensuing benching, his 177-yard passing game this past weekend featured just one sack and no turnovers as Notre Dame won its biggest game in at least 10 years.

Behind the scenes, beyond the box score, Golson has grown up, which in turn has helped him stay up.

"Night and day," Cave said of the communication. "Night and day."

Notre Dame mailblog

October, 5, 2012
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The Windy City is living up to its name.

J from Washington D.C. writes: I think it would be hilarious if Irish Chocolate was suddenly revealed to have an insanely accurate cannon arm.

Matt Fortuna: But J, Louis Nix said this week he wants to be a Wildcat-only QB! That would certainly add a new look to the Irish offense that we have yet to see, no? I don't think too many outside of the Notre Dame coaching staff would object to the idea, either.




Chuck Otis from Wilmington, Mass., writes: Can the Irish beat Miami this week? You have to admit they have played the toughest schedule so far.

Matt Fortuna: Chuck, Notre Dame can and should win, though the Hurricanes certainly have the playmakers that can make this thing interesting. Colleague Travis Haney had the Irish this week at No. 2 on his merit-based rankings. I'd have to agree with his top two choices, with Oregon State coming in at No. 1.




Mikail from Ave Maria, Fla., writes: Matt, Riddick has played well this year, but my read is that Wood has out performed him in every game that they both played (the stats back that up as well). I'm surprised that Wood isn't getting more touches - I know that there's a lot of talent at the RB position with limited space on the field, but why is our most experienced back, a 1000 yard rusher from last year, getting fewer touches when he's still more productive?

Matt Fortuna: Mikhail, I think everyone is a bit surprised Wood has not touched the ball more so far, though Riddick is more of a receiving threat. Brian Kelly said Thursday that the touches have more to do with the ground game's zone-blocking technique under new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, as it requires the backs to be more patient in waiting for holes to open up. There should be opportunities for both to make plays Saturday night.




Brian from Portsmouth, Ohio, writes: How can people say that ND isnt in the title hunt with their schedule? They have one of the hardest schedules in college this year.

Matt Fortuna: I think it's just a matter of whether the Irish will look impressive enough to leap some of the undefeated teams ahead of them if multiple teams run the table. Alabama? Not happening, for obvious reasons. Florida State? Maybe, since the Seminoles' schedule isn't all that great. Oregon? Not a great schedule, but the Ducks do get a 13th game if they run the table, and a win in the Pac-12 title game over, say, USC for a second time, would enhance their profile. The Irish's slate looks a lot less difficult though after the season's first month, and Notre Dame is currently ranked higher than all of its opponents, each of which has already lost a game. Boston College, a road ACC game, is essentially the closest thing the Irish have remaining to a cupcake, so I think it's important to keep in mind that there really are no lay-ups here (Navy gets a pass, in an opener overseas). Bottom line, it's too early to be worrying about these types of things. Notre Dame looks like it has a chance to win every game, but it's a few miscues away from being in deep trouble, too. If the Irish win out, I'd have a hard time seeing them not in the national title game. (I also have a hard time seeing four or five BCS programs going undefeated this season.)

Top 25 player countdown: No. 7

August, 23, 2012
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No. 7. Zack Martin, LT

2011 numbers: The 6-foot-4, 304-pound Martin started all 13 games last season for a unit that allowed just 17 sacks. He was named the team's best offensive lineman for the second straight season.

Making the case for Martin: When Brian Kelly is asked what he knows about his team going into this season, he says he knows his team will win the battle in the trenches, and that's a good feeling. His left tackle is a big reason for that, as Martin returns after 26 straight starts on the line. The redshirt junior will anchor a unit that brings back three starters from the same position as last season, four in all, and is under a new coach in the well-traveled Harry Hiestand. Like center Braxston Cave, Martin is also on the watch list for the Outland Trophy.

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