Zack Martin was one of the most pleasant surprises and consistent performers for the Fighting Irish offense in 2010, which was particularly impressive considering that he was a first-time starter after preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman.
That success has ramped up the expectations as one of four returning starters along the offensive line.
“There were times where physically, he got worn down,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Martin. “So this has been more about physical development, strength, his core, and leadership.
“When you’re a first-time starter, you’re not saying much. You’re worrying about your own. So we need great communication between him and the new left guard, whoever it is.”
Martin had the advantage last year of lining up next to 350-pound Chris Stewart, the cerebral veteran guard who had the physical and mental capacity to help the raw rookie through some of the more difficult times.
But now Stewart is gone. Center Braxston Cave, right guard Trevor Robinson, and right tackle Taylor Dever return with Martin. The only real variable is that left guard spot where fifth-year senior-to-be Andrew Nuss and junior-to-be Chris Watt are fighting it out this spring. (Mike Golic, Jr., is cross training at center and guard.)
“Obviously, Stew is a big loss when it comes to leadership and his knowledge and experience,” Martin said. “But Chris and Andrew have played there before, and I’ve played next to both of them. There’s not much difference. They’ve done well. They’re both getting reps and getting better every day.”
Kelly puts some of the burden for the development at left guard on Martin.
“That left guard, whether it’s Nuss or whether it’s Watt or Golic, they’re all communicating, and it starts with Martin because he’s the one with experience,” Kelly said.
Piling responsibilities upon the shoulders of Martin is a natural progression because he is, at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds with three years of eligibility remaining, one of the most gifted offensive linemen in the program. If all of Notre Dame’s offensive linemen were eligible for the draft today, one could make a relatively easy argument that Martin - even more so than the talented Robinson - is the best prospect of the bunch.
Martin readily adapted to the left tackle position in 2010, showing his versatility and agility in the open field of the spread offense. Now it’s a matter of increasing his stamina and leaning on him in that leadership role.
“Last year was my first year playing, so I took a backseat role and let the seniors (handle) most of the leadership,” Martin said. “I agree with Coach Kelly that now that it’s my second year, I have some experience and I need to become one of the leaders on the line.
“For me, leading by example, whether it be going a little harder on a rep or showing enthusiasm during the next drill, that’s what I need to do.”
As for the stamina part, Martin quickly learned that it was the old “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” routine.
“The offense isn’t going to change, so you have to change,” Martin smiled. “Just keep repping, keep busting your butt in practice during that 11-on-11 period and game-time situations, and get in playing shape.
“There’s a difference between conditioning in the weight room and conditioning for football. Stamina is just about being consistent play after play.”
With Michael Floyd sidelined indefinitely due to suspension, the uncertainty at quarterback, and a lack of depth at running back, it’s the line that has to carry the burden of leadership, which is always a good starting point for an offense.
“That’s something we’re going to take pride in because it comes down to the offensive line,” Martin said. “At the end of last year, we were running the ball better, and it kind of went through the offensive line. That’s something we’re going to put on ourselves. We need to be the leaders of the offense.”
Many of the concerns along the offensive line - individually and collectively - have been quelled.
“It’s more productive for us because we don’t have to worry about what the person next to us is doing, and the coaches don’t have to tell us the little things,” Martin said. “We know what is expected of us. It’s more of us just putting everything together.
“Last spring, coming in with the new offense, you had to worry about what your assignment was. I know what I’m doing now so I can focus on my technique and where the aiming point needs to be.
“Just being in there and getting the experience and reps is a huge thing. If you can go out there on the field and be confident and not worry about every play and what you do, that’s the biggest thing.”
Once spring ball concludes, Martin can turn his attention to another transition coming up in his life: college football with fellow offensive lineman and younger brother Nick, who will arrive this summer as a freshman interior offensive lineman after originally committing to Kentucky.
“I was really psyched,” said Martin of his brother’s decision to come to Notre Dame. “He talked about it, but didn’t have an offer for a while, so he committed to Kentucky.
“We all supported him, and then when he got offered here, I told him, ‘The offer is on the table. Come and visit.’ He came up here a couple of times and he knows my friends and all the guys up here really well. I think he’ll be fine.”
Martin already has been in little brother’s ear about what to expect.
“I told him to be in shape because it’s totally different from anything you’ve experienced in high school,” Martin smiled.
He’s thought about running out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel with his brother and lining up next to him on the field on game day.
“That’s one of the things we’ve talked about, both of us running out there and being on the field together,” Martin said. “It’s something we’re really going to work to. It would be awesome.”