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Shelved until fall, Martini a key piece of linebacking puzzle

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The ascent of Nyles Morgan has been one of spring’s critical developments. But as Notre Dame pushes into the offseason, one piece of the still-to-be-solved defensive puzzle is still on the sidelines.

Rising junior Greer Martini may end up being one of the team’s most impactful defenders. And he could manage to do that without finding his way into the starting lineup.

Among those spending spring healing after postseason surgery, Martini’s place in the future construct of the defense may not yet be figured out. But with a versatility that’s been on display since he stepped foot on campus, Martini’s role in the defense was discussed by position coach Mike Elston on Wednesday, who pointed to the many roles Martini can fill in Brian VanGorder’s scheme once he’s healthy.

“Greer would afford us the opportunity to cross-train him,” Elston said. “Greer’s got very good understanding of our coverages, so Greer could go from the Sam and when we put a nickel in for the Sam, he could pop over and play the dime position. Greer’s got a lot of flexibility, but he would in base defense be with the Sam.”

Martini will compete for snaps in the base package of the Irish defense with senior James Onwualu, likely taking to the trenches while Onwualu operates in space. But he’s more than just a situational Sam linebacker—he’s a Swiss Army Knife capable of playing any linebacker position once he’s healthy, versatility that the Irish desperately need with little established depth currently on the roster.

That could mean starting at Will if Te’von Coney or Asmar Bilal aren’t ready to make the leap. Or taking over the Sam job while Onwualu focuses on situational work in nickel or playing in space. Some thought Martini could even challenge Morgan for the starting Mike job this spring if he were practicing, less of an indictment on Morgan but rather a testament to Martini’s athleticism and nose for the game.

Not many saw what the Irish staff did when they offered and accepted the commitment of a soft-bodied linebacker and tight end playing against underwhelming competition at a Virginia prep school. But even with three-star status as one of the least heralded recruits on campus, Martini was one of the first onto the field, following the trend he set when he became the inaugural commitment in the 2014 recruiting cycle.

Martini has played in all 26 games of his career in South Bend, doubling the two emergency starts he made as a freshman last year as he continued carving out his niche. One that’s been most prominently displayed is Martini’s work as an option specialist, another job that’ll earn double-time with both Navy and Army on the slate in 2016.

But with Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace all gone from the depth chart, Martini is poised to be much more than a situational substitute. While he might not have a singular spot, his ability to flow from sideline to sideline and to operate in the trenches or out in space will restore some of the versatility the Irish sorely missed last season.

So while Saturday will be an opportunity to see the growth of youngsters Bilal and Josh Barajas and the evolution of Morgan and Onwualu, Martini’s will be watching from the sideline, stuck supporting his teammates at a position group stripped to just four scholarship linebackers this spring.

But come August, expect Martini to be everywhere on the football field—even if he isn’t in the starting lineup.