Every down: Martini evolves from specialized run-stopper to captain and starter
Marek Mazurek | Friday, November 17, 2017
Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 edition of The Observer.
Greer Martini likes playing downhill.
Just ask former Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who Martini sacked on a key third down with just under five minutes to go before halftime in Notre Dame’s 2015 game against the Cardinals — just the third start of Martini’s career.
Or ask former Navy quarterback Will Worth, who Martini stopped dead in his tracks on a 4th-and-four at the beginning of the second quarter last year against the Midshipmen.
You could also try Darik Dillard, a former running back at Rice, who Martini shoved out of bounds in just his second defensive snap as an Irish linebacker just after halftime of Notre Dame’s 2014 season-opener against Rice.
No matter who you ask, they’ll tell you that Greer Martini has made an impact from the minute he’s worn an Irish uniform — especially against the run.
In his freshman season, Martini tallied 26 tackles, with nine of them coming against the triple-option offense of Navy.
Martini’s sophomore season saw similar success versus run-first teams as the Cary, North Carolina, native racked up eight tackles in his first collegiate start against then-No. 14 Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense before recording eight more against Massachusetts and another nine against Navy.
Martini said he owed his early success to determination and to the help he got from the elder statesmen on the team at the time.
“I think it was just a want to,” Martini said. “I also had a lot of older guys that really helped me out when I was a freshman. Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace, these type of guys, just took me under their wing and really allowed me to focus in on what I needed to focus in on as a freshman. Because a lot can kind of get lost in the process because it’s all new. I think having guys like that really settled me and allowed me to be effective against those teams.”
Through his first three years with the Irish, Martini’s playing time in matchups against non-option opponents remained limited. However, Martini still made an impact in his junior year by notching a career-high 11 tackles in a 28-27 loss to Navy in Jacksonville, Florida, and following it up with a nine-tackle performance against Army a week later.
“I think that early on for me, it was easier for me to run downhill and try and find the ball then get back in pass coverage and pick up routes and stuff like that,” Martini said. “I think that takes some time to develop.”
But as Notre Dame heads into Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, for the first time since 2012, Martini’s name is at the top of the depth chart for the Buck linebacker slot.
And no one is thinking twice about it.
That’s because this offseason saw Martini make the transformation from a triple-option-stopping specialist to starting linebacker in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s new defense.
“[Earning a starting role] was my goal from the start,” Martini said. “It was a long process and it wasn’t always easy. But now that it’s here, it’s really exciting and I’m glad that this is my senior year and this is the way it’s going to end.”
For Martini, that process started with new strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis and his intensive, often punishing, offseason workouts.
“First off, it’s just strength, [Balis] increased my strength and my speed and my stamina,” Martini said.
During his sophomore season Martini was listed at 245 pounds. Now at 236 pounds, he’s leaner and quicker.
But pure strength only goes so far. In addition to more physical tools, Martini said his mindset and confidence also played large roles in his transformation.
“Each year you pick up new things, new traits, but ultimately I think it was a combination of the Balis strength program, as well as the confidence from me just knowing that I could be that everyday-back,” Martini said. “And just showing up each day with the attitude that, each day I just have to get a little bit better.”
So far in 2017, Martini’s improvements have yielded noticeable results. Martini recorded six tackles in both games this season, including a forced fumble on a fourth-down attempt in the season opener versus Temple.
But beyond his increased playing time, there’s another difference between the Martini Irish fans saw on the field last year as opposed to this one.
This year, he’s sporting the captain’s “C” on this chest.
“It’s amazing. It’s a dream come true to wear the “C” on my chest,” Martini said.
Martini said he first found out he was to be named a captain during his exit interview with Irish head coach Brian Kelly at the end of the 2016 season.
“For me, I didn’t really know what to think at the time,” Martini said. “I remember I walked out of the Gug and called my dad and my dad just started crying, so it was a pretty special moment.”
In a break with tradition, Kelly named the captains for the 2017 season before the 2017 calendar year rolled around. But Martini said he liked having captains established before spring practices, as the rigorous Balis workout regimen provided an excellent platform for the team, and its leaders, to build around.
“So much of that training was mental toughness,” Martini said. “And [Balis] really, through shared adversity, made this team change the culture and that was really exciting this offseason to come together as a team through his workouts because they were so tough it brought us together and created a different culture.”
Shared adversity in training can work wonders, but Martini also touched on the importance of leadership outside of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
“But I think it’s all about relationships, whether I was a captain or not, it’s all about developing relationships with the younger guys as an older guy and making them more comfortable around the locker room, on the field, bringing them to different things outside of the Gug,” Martini said. “It’s all about creating a team culture that they feel very comfortable in, being in the locker room and learning from you, so that the next years, when you’re gone, Notre Dame football’s going to continue. And you want that to be a great historic thing from us.”
So what does Martini think the next generation of Notre Dame linebackers needs to do to be successful against Boston College come gameday?
“I think ultimately, just flying to the ball,” Martini said. “As long as we’re moving and playing aggressive, we’ll be alright.”