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Open competition for the go-to guy

Position changes and personnel may be a hot topic of conversation in the media and among fans during spring practice, but offensive coordinator Chuck Martin couldn’t care less about the labels and pecking order of his players.

Irish coach Chuck Martin is looking for players to fight for the ball in his first year as offensive coordinator.

“I don’t even think in those terms,” said Martin, who is starting his first go-round as an offensive assistant in his 21st year of coaching. “I don’t know if we’ll ever let you guys watch practice, but if you did it would be really hard to figure out our personnel right now.”

Notre Dame’s offense under Martin plans to blur the lines between each skill position more than it has in the past. Head coach Brian Kelly pulls the majority of strings for the Irish attack, and he’s no stranger to shuffling the pages of his playbook from year to year to suit what he has on the roster. Last year, Michael Floyd was the No. 1 undisputed weapon for the Irish, and he bounced around to several different spots to try to get the ball in his hands. This season the field is wide open for players to step up and become the go-to guy.

“The beauty of where coach is taking this thing is it’s open competition for the football, not for starting jobs,” Martin said. “It isn’t about that I’m battling the back up tailback, it’s I’m battling for them to call me a play to get the football.”

Kelly and Martin both said All-American tight end Tyler Eifert is one player who they will line up from sideline to sideline to get the ball in his hands and make up for a lack of depth at the wide receiver position. Eifert’s ability to flex into a wide receiver position can create major match-up problems for a college defense, as Martin learned first hand while trying to prepare his safeties for the three tight ends sets Stanford ran against Notre Dame last November.

The majority of Notre Dame’s offensive firepower next season, though, will reside in the backfield with 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood, four-year veteran Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III, whose stock is on the rise this spring. Finding a way to get them the ball in many different situations was a major factor in combining the running back and slot receiver position groups this season.

The last time Kelly and Martin had to rely on a running back as their star they won a national championship. In 2003, Grand Valley State lost two Harlon Hill Award (Div. II’s equivalent of the Heisman) finalists at quarterback and wide receiver and had to replace them with underclassmen. So, Kelly turned to redshirt junior running back Mike Tennessee to carry the offense.

Tennessee led the team in both carries (342) and receptions (63) that season while setting a school record for all-purpose yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown in the national title game. To put those 405 touches in perspective, consider that Riddick, Wood and senior Jonas Gray had a combined 416 among them last season.

“I didn’t think it was possible to have that many run plays from the spread offense,” Tennessee said. “I was impressed with the way he implemented it and made it work for us. One thing that [Kelly and Martin] are both good at is catering to the talent they have around them.”

Tennessee said he caught a lot of his passes from the slot position rather than out of the backfield because it was easier to find space in the flat if he didn’t have to start five yards behind the ball. He watches the Notre Dame games on television and recognizes a lot of the same offense he ran nearly a decade ago — down to the hand signals used to relay plays on to the field. He said the offense at Grand Valley was more than big enough to turn anyone on the field into the main event.

“They definitely try to find that one guy, but they value balance as well,” he said. “The playbook is big enough where they can turn any guy into the guy.”

Learning Curve
Kelly took the job at Central Michigan following the 2003 season and left Martin as the team’s new head coach for Tennessee’s senior season. He said Martin allowed the team’s offensive coordinator to run the show for the most part while he spent a year absorbing a part of the game he had never coached before.

This spring is much the same for Martin, who is reacquainting himself with coaching quarterbacks and running an offense. He said the little things, like remembering where to stand for the best angle during drills, have left him a little discombobulated during the first week of practice. Kelly works closely with the quarterbacks, and Martin spends as much time learning as he does coaching.

“Technically [Kelly] is eons ahead of me,” Martin said. “When we go individual I’m listening to what coach Kelly is telling them. I have an idea, don’t get me wrong, I’ve coached quarterbacks before but it’s not even close.”

Kelly will likely continue to groom his four quarterback candidates throughout the spring while Martin settles into his new spot and takes control of the rest of his responsibilities running the offense. Those, he says, he has a much better handle on.

“The rest of the game I’ve got, defense and the reads and the other parts of the job I’m very comfortable with,” he said. “I’m pretty comfortable with anything. I’m not smart enough to not be comfortable.”

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