Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines, the groups that effectively carried the Irish to an undefeated regular season in 2012, will remain well-stocked next fall.
Irish junior Louis Nix is one of several Notre Dame linemen sticking around for another year in South Bend.
Senior tackle Zack Martin, senior guard Chris Watt and junior nose guard Louis Nix all decided to return to South Bend for another season of eligibility before hearing what the NFL thought of them. Head coach Brian Kelly announced Martin and Watt plan to use their final years of eligibility next fall. He also said Nix, who said earlier this month he submitted for an NFL evaluation, decided not to leave after his junior season.
“As you know, [Martin] is our most outstanding offensive lineman, and to have him back, along with Chris Watt and Christian Lombard gives us three very veteran offensive linemen returning for next year,” Kelly said Tuesday afternoon.
Martin and Watt formed the left side of Notre Dame’s line for the second consecutive season and carried the Irish to 202.5 rushing yards per game. That leaves Notre Dame with only two holes to fill on the offensive line at center and guard for departing fifth-year seniors Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr.
Sophomore Matt Hegarty, a candidate to take over Cave’s job at center in the future, won’t get any extra time to make a case during bowl preparation. He had surgery earlier this month to fix an unspecified injury. Kelly said he was optimistic that Hegarty would be back with the team for spring practice. Freshman tackle Ronnie Stanley also had surgery to repair a ligament in his elbow this December and will sit out during bowl season.
Nix’s return solidifies what will be one of the country’s top starting defensive line groups even with the loss of fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore. Nix made 45 tackles in his second season on the field and shared the defensive lineman of the year award with sophomore end Stephon Tuitt. He previously said he wasn't completely sure about his plans for next year following the team awards ceremony.
Kelly reported that senior running back Cierre Wood will wait to hear about his draft stock before deciding whether to return for a fifth season.
An Underdog All Year
No. 1 Notre Dame enters its championship match-up with No. 2 Alabama teetering on the edge of being a double-digit underdog. In past stops on his way to South Bend that might have been bulletin board material for Kelly and his staff, but he is choosing to ignore it this time around.
“I don't know if that's as pertinent because it's a one game deal,” Kelly said. “It's all or nothing. Both teams have different dynamics to deal with a long layoff. Preparation is more important than any kind of fire-and-brimstone speech I can bring them.”
The fire and brimstone routine loses its motivational effect if it’s used too often, and Notre Dame has had a season full of opportunities to pit itself in the role of David. Even within the halls of the Guglielmino Complex, Kelly heard that 2012 was an acceptable rebuilding year for a team with a rookie quarterback an a thin secondary.
“Those words were clearly in my ear. But I have not done a good job my entire career of listening to other people's expectations,” he said. “I had set my own expectations for what we wanted to accomplish, and we went about it that way.”
Golson on the Big Stage
Kelly said he made adjustments to his offense all year to find a way to win right away while starting a rookie quarterback. He’s not worried, though, about how sophomore Everett Golson will react to the atmosphere of the biggest game of the year.
Golson played his best away from South Bend this season, including upset wins over Michigan State and Oklahoma in front of hostile crowds. Kelly said Golson will likely have to make a couple of big plays for the Irish to succeed against Alabama, but that doesn’t give him any reason for concern.
“I would be very, very surprised if he can't handle the moment,” Kelly said. “I think he's got enough experience this year that he can go in there and play the game. He'll be like anybody else. The nerves will have to settle down. I think as he gets into the flow of the game, once you start seeing him smile a little bit, I think everyone that watches him knows that's when he plays his best.”