NOTRE DAME, Ind. – This year’s Notre Dame football team has been more like a family than any in recent years. It is fitting that, ultimately, family played large roles in the decisions of nose guard Louis Nix III and offensive tackle Zack Martin to return next year for another season of college football.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced on Monday that both Nix and Martin will return to the team next year rather than declare for the 2013 NFL Draft. Martin will return for his fifth year of eligibility and one of the biggest reasons is the chance to play alongside his brother Nick Martin next fall.
“I wanted to play with my little brother,” the left tackle said during Monday’s pre-bowl media day inside Notre Dame’s Loftus Center. “I wanted to finish out with (Chris) Watt and ultimately I wanted to play another year with (offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand. He’s taken my game to a new level this year and I know another year with him will just get me even better.”
Zack Martin has started all 12 games at left tackle this season after starting all 13 games for the Irish last season. Nick Martin is yet to make a start, but he has played in all 12 games this year after sitting all of 2011 as a true freshman.
“It’s great,” Martin said of life on the Notre Dame campus with his younger sibling. “We’re able to be with each other on and off the field a lot. It’s nice having him play offensive line, obviously we’re in the meetings every day together. To have an opportunity to run on the field with him next year and play every snap with him is an opportunity that doesn’t come around.”
Martin’s return next year means he, Christian Lombard and Chris Watt will all be back to anchor an offensive line that that has paved the way for a rushing attack that has averaged better than 202 yards a game and has also allowed just 16 sacks. It is a vast improvement under first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
“He’s everything that I’ve ever wanted in an offensive line coach,” Martin said of Hiestand. “He pushes you on the field. He’s a technician, so he’s always working on your technique. He’s taught us what it means to work, but off the field he’s someone you can sit down and talk to and go have dinner with.”
“He’s really everything that our offensive line group is looking for,” Martin continued. “Just the pride that he’s kind of instilled back in the offensive line group at Notre Dame. It hasn’t been here for a while. The offensive line at Notre Dame the last however many years has kind of been the whipping boy of the team, so it’s time to change that and I don’t think we could have got a better guy.”
Family played a big role for Martin’s decision to return and it did for Nix as well. While Martin’s family pull had to do with the chance to play next to his brother, Nix’s decision came from constant pressure from his mom.
“She calls me every day,” Nix said on Monday. “My mom literally calls me every day, like 20 times and I’m so serious – no exaggeration. She calls me until I pick up. We talk every day and she wanted to know if I was coming back and she kept asking me and I told her I didn’t know.”
“She always brings up the fact that she wants to walk on the field with me for the senior game and be there and see my last game, because she never got to do it in high school.”
Nix finally broke down last week and told his mom that he will be back in an Irish uniform next year. In fact, he told his mom of his decision last week before he told Kelly of his plans. Nix’s extended family at Notre Dame, teammates like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert who have had to make similar decisions, also helped him along the way.
“I don’t really try to make people dictate how to make my decisions,” Nix said of the input from his teammates. “But those guys had the same experiences and they were just letting me know ‘do what’s best for you’. I stuck with that. My mom, she really wants to come to my last game at Notre Dame Stadium next year.”
Most NFL Draft analysts have both Martin and Nix as potential third-round picks if they would have declared this year. Nix’s stock has risen mightily this year and Walter Football.com NFL Draft Writer Charlie Campbell believes the nose guard will see his stock rise after one more year in college.
“In his situation I actually think he would benefit from coming back,” Miller recently said of Nix. “It’s a strong defensive tackle class (for the 2013 draft) and he could come back and put another year of quality film together and he might be a late first round pick (in 2014) if he stays healthy. He’s in a good situation to come back and be a leader on that defense and really move his stock up.”
Offensive tackle will be a deep position in the 2013 draft. At 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Martin is seen as still a bit undersized for a position that averages about 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds in the NFL. Bleacherreport.com NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller recently told ISD that Martin can keep improving and eventually drive his NFL stock up for the 2014 draft.
“From game to game he is a little bit of a different player,” Miller said of Martin. “I like that he’s played so well in their system, because I actually think that what they do up front is going to translate really well to the next level. He’s one of those guys that’s probably a little bit more prepared than some of these spread option type kids that we see coming out.”
Running back Cierre Wood and tight end Tyler Eifert are other Irish players that could potentially return for a final year of eligibility at Notre Dame. Eifert is projected as a first-round pick, so he would seem to be a lock to declare for the draft after the national championship game. Kelly said on Monday that Wood will wait to hear what his NFL evaluation is before making his decision.