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Pope: In spring, position battles take center stage

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Updated: May 7, 2013 6:12AM



SOUTH BEND — Louis Nix III wasn’t sure what to expect from Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty.

He found out right away.

“They are giving me a little battle,” Notre Dame’s All-America nose guard said of two players fighting for the team’s starting center position. “I took them lightly at first, but I found out not to do that. Those guys really want a spot. Both of those guys are fighting for a starting spot. They went hard every play on me.

“…They are showing me they can make me better. Not to underestimate anybody. They hit me in the mouth every play and I hit them in the mouth every play and we just get better as a team.”

And that’s what spring is about.

It’s an opportunity to get better. It’s an opportunity to sharpen the fundamentals. And it’s an opportunity to prove yourself if a spot is available.

Notre Dame has conducted seven practices this spring. Today will be the eighth of 16. Things wrap up with the Blue-Gold Game April 20.

The team coming off an appearance in the BCS national title game has some holes to fill. And one of the most important spots coach Brian Kelly pointed out is at center.

Martin, Hegarty and Conor Hanratty are jumping at the chance to fill the void.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said Martin. “I’m a competitive guy. I love competition. Matt is one of my very good buddies. We’re on the field, we help each other. He does a rep, I help him. I do a rep, he has some comments for me. It’s all positive. It’s all constructive.”

Martin played primarily at guard and tackle during his first two seasons at Notre Dame. He has spent the most time with the No. 1 unit at center this spring. Hegarty, who played in nine games last season, has also seen lots of time with the No. 1 offense.

“I think it’s going well. It’s a new position. I’m learning a lot,” Martin said. “Trying to figure it out. I’m working with Everett (Golson) and Tommy (Rees) and all the quarterbacks. And obviously with the offensive line, being able to play next to (his brother) Zack (Martin), (Chris) Watt, some veterans, it really helps you out. They’ll watch your technique and help you in the film room.”

Tight end is another area of interest. Tyler Eifert was a vital part of the offense in the past. Now he’s preparing for the NFL draft.

Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch are among those looking to create their own path.

“I’m here trying to do my own thing, not trying to be anyone else,” the 6-foot-6, 259-pound Niklas said. “That would be cool if I became an athlete similar to him.”

Niklas had five catches for 75 yards last year.

“I’m starting to get very comfortable with the offense and what I need to do every day to get the job done,” Niklas said.

“One of the biggest emphases I had in the spring was my route running and pass catching. I’ve made pretty good strides so far. I just want to become the best tight end that I can be. Be as dynamic as I can pass catching and blocking and route running.”

When it comes to being in a position battle, pressure wasn’t exactly the word that came out of the players’ mouths.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s not very fun to go to practice if you already know you’ve got the spot. Right now, there’s a lot of motivation to get better. All of us are benefiting from that.”

Nix is seeing that on both sides of the ball. He pointed to the involvement of defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann.

“Day has taken on the role very well,” Nix said. “Sometimes he’s shocked that he’s in the position that he’s in, playing a little bit of minutes to starting now. He’s taking on the role pretty well. He’s going against Zack Martin every day, and that’s getting him better.

“And Springmann is stepping up as well. He’s versatile, at nose, at end. Losing (Kapron Lewis-Moore) was a big deal, but we’ll keep moving forward.”

That’s the beauty of spring.



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