You may have noticed, but favorability polls are a bit of thing going on in our country right now. It seems to be a good starting place when discussing linebacker Greer Martini. If there were a poll given to Notre Dame fans across the country asking for a favorable/unfavorable opinion of Martini strictly as a football player, I’d venture to guess he’d come in around 90% on the positive side.
Fans like him. When he plays he does the job well–especially against the option teams–and most importantly, he never seems to leave the defense out to dry with a missed assignment or missed tackle. He’s been a solid player for the Notre Dame defense during his first two years on campus. In that time he has amassed 61 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Given the departures at the linebacker position, he’d figure to be a shoe in for a starting spot in Notre Dame’s base defense.
Yet it’s likely, barring injury, he will begin the season on the sideline when the #1 defense takes the field. This development was aided by his own injury (he had off-season shoulder surgery that kept him out all spring practice) and allowed redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal to take most of the reps at the weak side (WILL) linebacker spot vacated by All-American Jaylon Smith. In addition, sophomore Te’Von Coney saw a good amount of time at the WILL position when filling in for Smith last season, but he also had shoulder surgery in the off-season and missed all of spring practice. His presence would provide another hurdle into the starting lineup for Martini, at least at WILL linebacker.
However, what seems to hamper Martini most is his lack of a natural position at linebacker. He is an excellent athlete, but he lacks the straight line speed of Bilal or the power of Coney at the WILL position, and he doesn’t offer the coverage skills possessed by James Onwualu at the strong side (SAM) linebacker spot. Further complicating his ascent into the starting SAM spot, Onwualu is a true senior who would seem to be a strong candidate for being named captain. And unfortunately, Martini doesn’t bring the girth at middle linebacker that Nyles Morgan does. At each position, there is someone who does something a little bit better than Martini and the best 11 players need to be on the field.
And yet, I’d be willing to bet that at some point in this upcoming season, there will be a moment when fans sit back and say, “Thank goodness for Greer Martini”.
Greer Martini Stops The Option
It should be noted that, again barring health, Martini will accrue two starts against Navy and Army this year. He has proven to be extremely adept at defending the option, both against Georgia Tech and Navy last season. In fact, in his three games against pure option teams thus far in his career, Martini has tallied 26 tackles. Comparatively, Jaylon Smith accrued 17 tackles in those three contests. The young man just has a knack for defending the option teams, whether it’s tracking down the slippery Justin Thomas in the open field or shedding a block and tripping up Keenan Reynolds.
He’ll be an asset in those games, no matter what.
Versatility is Greer Martini’s Greatest Strength
But, the beauty of Martini is his versatility. He can play any of the three linebacker positions well and on a team that is lacking in depth at any of the three spots, in many ways he is one of Notre Dame’s most important players.
Let’s be honest, there is, what, a 10% chance all three linebackers go the entire 12 regular season schedule uninjured? Less than 10%? What if Nyles Morgan–who I believe is the single most important player on the Notre Dame team outside of whoever is playing quarterback–has to miss a game or two with a minor injury? Does anyone not have the utmost confidence Martini can step in and do the job?
I don’t want to sell the young man short, there is a good chance he simply beats out Coney and Bilal for the starting spot at WILL and we see a rotation there a la Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese in 2012. Such a rotation has proven very successful for Notre Dame – Calabrese and Fox combined for 112 tackles in 2012.
Martini is like the perfect utility outfielder on a baseball team who can fill in at any spot and be adept, which makes this linebacker situation very good in the sense that there are four guys for three spots who can all play at a high level (the situation beyond those guys should only be discussed on an as needed basis). It also helps that Martini is in the magical third season of the Brian VanGorder defense. This should allow him to have repped and have an understanding of all three positions. In that sense, it’s almost better to limit his reps in the first half of the season; losing their safety net to the entire linebacking core would put them in a precarious situation.
The specter of Martini’s shoulder injury further muddles the circumstances around the linebacking core. Brian Kelly recently stated that all players have been cleared and ready to go for fall camp, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Martini’s fitness and strength are where he wants it to be. My thought is Martini is cross trained at all three positions during fall camp but gives way to another player on a full time basis. He will, however, be the first player off the bench for all three and finding a rotation at one of those spots. He’s too good to not be playing 20-30 snaps a game.
Utility players are almost always under appreciated until the team is placed in a jam; it’s just the nature of that kind of a role. But, it’s a role that can save a team in a big game or a stretch of games. Greer Martini’s skill set is well equipped for such a role. And when that time comes everyone is going to say to themselves, “Thank goodness for Greer Martini”.