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Martin matures into vocal offensive leader

Sam Gans | Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Notre Dame offense has been hot and cold all year – at times a well-oiled machine and at others a sputtering cog. Just make sure not to blame Zack Martin when things don’t go well.

Martin, in his third year starting at left tackle for the No. 3 Irish, has been a model for consistency on Notre Dame’s offensive line this season. Martin has allowed only one sack all season – on the season’s opening drive against Navy – and frequently grades highly in offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s critiques of each individual lineman’s performance.

“He’s lapping the field. He’s that good on a consistent basis,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of Martin in a press conference on Nov. 6. “I think [Hiestand] is grading him out in the 90s where guys are grading in the 60s and 70s. He’s just a consistent player for us at a high level, and has been that way all year.”

Hiestand’s ratings are not simple evaluations, but rather look at all the aspects of offensive line play.

“Coach Hiestand is very thorough on his grading,” Martin said. “He coaches your technique, your steps, your hands, your footwork and then he goes through if you’re doing your job and if you block your man. So it’s not just a check for this play, there’s a few things for each play.”

It’s no surprise Martin, who will make his 37th career start on Senior Day against Wake Forest, rates well. The 6-foot-4, 304-pound Indianapolis native was named Notre Dame’s Guardian of the Year in both 2010 and 2011 as the top offensive lineman on the roster. In 2010, the Irish allowed 1.54 sacks per game, their fewest since 1998; in 2011, Notre Dame ran the ball for a 4.8 yards-per-carry average, its most since 1996. The Irish are just under that mark this season, at 4.78 yards per carry.

Martin’s position on the line is of particular importance, as he protects sophomore quarterback Everett Golson’s blind side, along with holding additional responsibilities.

“I think [a left tackle has] to be a balanced player,” Martin said. “You have to be able to communicate to the rest of the line, because if you have something off the edge, you have to communicate it all the way down. You’ve got to be able to protect the speed rusher off the edge and then also you’ve got to be able to run block. So it’s kind of a balanced position.”

Despite success as an individual and as a unit and nearly three full seasons of experience, Martin says he is still improving as he accumulates more repetitions and corrects tendencies he notices need fixed in film study.

“I think I’ve improved more in awareness of the game and the more you can get in there and the more you can get reps and plays, that’s where I’ve improved in the most, I think. I think [the consistency comes] through repetition and trying to get things right,” Martin said. “It’s the studying the game – that’s the biggest thing. Offensive line play, everyone thinks it’s a big, brutal game. But if you watch film and learn stuff, you can make yourself that much better of a player just by learning what little keys you pick up from film. That’s something I’ve been able to do.”

Martin’s impact on the field has been substantial since his sophomore year, but his role increased this season when he was named one of four captains, along with Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Tyler Eifert.

“People are looking to you offensively to kind of bring that spark and that leadership,” Martin said. “I try to be the same guy every day and I know myself and the captains just try to be ourselves and try to get the team up a little bit every day.”

That leadership ability is noticeable to teammates, including fellow senior and left guard Chris Watt, who has started alongside Martin for the past two years.

“Zack has been a really consistent player for us,” Watt said. “Also, we both came in together, so I’ve been able to see his leadership abilities grow over time. Obviously he’s a captain this year, and he’s been an important leader for this team. He’s done a great job.”

Before attending Notre Dame, Martin played football at Bishop Chatard High School after his family moved to Indianapolis from Kansas City when he was eight years old. But, despite going through the Catholic school system and living in Indiana, he was not a Notre Dame fan in his youth.

“I was never a Notre Dame fan growing up,” Martin said. “I watched them occasionally but I wasn’t a die-hard Notre Dame fan, but Indianapolis is a big Catholic community, big Notre Dame fans, so I have a lot of friends that are die-hards.”

Martin grew up playing football with two brothers. One of them, Nick, is now a sophomore offensive lineman for the Irish. Playing on the same position unit creates a unique opportunity for increased bonding.

“I was very excited when he committed and decided to come to South Bend,” Martin said. “It’s been a great couple of years having him up here. We’re enjoying the moment being up here together and having a good time.”

Martin did not play his freshman year at Notre Dame and has a fifth year of eligibility for the 2013 season, should he wish to use it – but he also could enter the NFL Draft after this season. Martin said he has not decided yet.

“I’m going to wait until the end of the season and talk to coaches and parents,” he said. “But right now I’m just trying to take it a game at a time and stay undefeated.”

It’s that focus on this season that is currently driving him, as the Irish have three games left, including the regular-season finale at USC.

The trip to Los Angeles will likely rekindle memories for Martin, who started in the 20-16 win over the Trojans in 2010, Notre Dame’s first win over USC since 2001. Martin said that experience was one of his favorite during his time in South Bend when he looks back.

“My first year playing out at USC was probably the first [memory] that comes to mind, because our season was kind of down a little bit and then we went out and had a big win in the Coliseum,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

The 10-0 start is something new for the Irish players, as none of them have been on a Notre Dame team that had less than five losses until this year. Martin said a potential reason why is the team’s performance in practice has noticeably improved.

“We’ve done a pretty good job this year in coming out and being ready to practice, so I don’t know if that’s the fact we’re winning or that we have a group of guys that can get up and actually enjoy practicing with their teammates,” he said.

Ultimately, Martin said it’s critical for the Irish to approach games with a “play to win” attitude, rather than one not to lose.

“The mentality of the team is that we’re undefeated, we have to go out there and we know we have to work,” he said.

If the season up to this point is any indication, that won’t be a problem for No. 70.

 

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu