With Nick Martin out, Irish confident in Matt Hegarty

With Nick Martin out, Irish confident in Matt Hegarty
November 28, 2013, 11:45 am

As trainers tended to Nick Martin on the frozen turf of Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, left guard Chris Watt approached Matt Hegarty to give him a few pointers. Hegarty was in line to replace the injured Martin at center and log his first significant minutes of the season.

Brigham Young was running a specific linebacker blitz Watt wanted to alert Hegarty to. When he told him, Watt was impressed by Hegarty's response.

"He was like 'yeah, yeah, I know. I got it. Let's go out there and do it,'" Watt said.

Not a whole lot phased Hegarty about the moment. Not only was it senior day, but it came against a formidable BYU front seven.

But Hegarty didn't feel the pressure or gravity of the situation he entered on Saturday. Instead, negotiating the below-freezing temperatures and wintry conditions was on his mind.

"The first thing I was thinking was I need to get my hands warm so I can fire this ball back and keep the game moving," Hegarty told reporters Wednesday. "As I settled down and took it in, it was pretty incredible to have that opportunity to play that day, to step in for the team when they really needed it and to be able to contribute."

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That opportunity wasn't always a given, seeing as Hegarty suffered a mini-stroke about a year ago. He underwent heart surgery last December and faced a possible end to his playing career.

"There was a window there where we were not certain whether he was going to be able to play again," coach Brian Kelly said.

Hegarty, though, returned to Notre Dame for spring practice last March. He wasn't able to beat out Martin for the No. 1 center gig, but despite that never had his attitude questioned by teammates.

"Him, maybe not even knowing he was ever going to play again, and to come back so soon and be a second-string guy this year and come to work every day and prepare … It speaks volume to his character," Zack Martin said.

"I think it just showed his level of commitment to the guys and how much he cares about the team to fight through something like that and still want to be out here with us," quarterback Tommy Rees said. "Really happy for him and his opportunity, and he's been a great guy in the locker room."

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There hasn't been much token praise for Hegarty this week — not only did Hegarty play in the game, but he played well, so it's been earned approbation.

For Kelly, a moment stood out: With Notre Dame backed up against its goal line and with high winds whipping snow around the field, Hegarty successfully snapped to Rees in the shotgun.

That's a given task for a center, but for a guy playing under pressure for the first time it left a positive impression with Kelly.

Hegarty will earn his first career start this Saturday at Stanford, no easy undertaking for some of the nation's most experienced centers. But in a reflective moment, Hegarty grasped the differences in the challenge he faced a year ago and the challenge he'll face in Palo Alto this weekend.

"At different times in your life your priorities change," Hegarty said. "At this time last year it was for my health, now it's to go out and play versus a great Stanford team with my guys on the line."