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Notre Dame Football: How Do the Irish Replace Zack Martin?

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Notre Dame Football: How Do the Irish Replace Zack Martin?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

It shouldn't be a revelation that Zack Martin is an elite offensive lineman. But after heading to the Senior Bowl as a secondary prospect, the former Irish left tackle planted a flag in Mobile, wowing NFL scouts and draft pundits with an impressive week against the cream of the draft-eligible crop, propelling himself into the conversation for best lineman in the draft. 

Martin was one of the big winners who took part in the week's festivities, pushing himself from second-day prospect to potentially the earliest pick of Senior Bowl participants, per Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com.

And while he's often been seen as a tier below Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Auburn's Greg Robinson, Martin proved this week he has earned every bit of the praise his former Notre Dame coaches heaped on him, per Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune.

"(Martin) is the best offensive lineman I've ever coached, and I've coached some great ones," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the Pinstripe Bowl.

That Martin was flying under the radar to begin with was fairly astounding. The 6'4", 305-pound left tackle started four straight seasons for the Irish, setting a record by playing in 52 straight games for Notre Dame, capping his career with an MVP performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. 

But applauding Martin for his durability is a disservice to his talents. He excelled from the day Brian Kelly inserted him at left tackle, a redshirt inserted into the starting lineup without ever playing a snap. That decision proved brilliant by Kelly, with Martin earning the team's offensive lineman of the year award all four seasons he played—the only player in school history to win the award more than twice. 

But playing a program known by many to be a hype machine, Martin flew below the radar for much of his career. Some of that had to do with his modest recruiting profile, per Rivals.com. But in a league where every inch and pound are parsed, Martin had to fight the fact that he isn't the biggest or longest offensive lineman in the draft.

But this week Martin's play dispelled any notion that at his size, he can't be a Pro Bowl-type player. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock (via Mike Huguenin of NFL.com), no stranger to Martin after broadcasting his games on NBC for the past four years, came away a believer

"I was really impressed by how good a football player he is," Mayock said on the NFL Network. "He's even better than I thought."

Martin may be good enough to turn what looked like a liability into an asset. While question marks surrounded his ability to play tackle in the NFL, his work this week has turned him into the most versatile lineman in this year's draft. 

"The conversation was, is he a tackle? Is he a right tackle? Is he a guard? What is Zack Martin?" Mayock said.  "And my answer to you is he's a football player, and next season he's going to start 16 games for somebody."

Postseason awards proved elusive for Martin, something offensive line coach Harry Hiestand found puzzling. "I’m not really sure who makes those decisions,” Hiestand said. "I watch an awful lot of film, so does our coaching staff. We don’t see anybody out there better than him."

It's hard to blame awards voters for something most Irish fans are guilty of, too. For a potential first-round draft pick and a player who's been a four-time award winner and two-time captain, Martin never received the adoration that other highly touted Irish players have. 

There have been plenty of tears shed this offseason, as fans worry about the loss of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas. But Notre Dame fans might have just watched four seasons from the finest offensive lineman in the history of Notre Dame football.

Notre Dame OL taken in the NFL Draft in last 30 years
Player Year Team Pick
Sam Young 2010 Dallas 179
Eric Olsen 2010 Denver 183
John Sullivan 2008 Minnesota 187
Ryan Harris 2007 Denver 70
Dan Santucci 2007 Cincinnati 230
Dan Stevenson 2006 New England 205
Jim Molinaro 2004 Washington 180
Jeff Faine 2003 Cleveland 21
Jordan Black 2003 Kansas City 153
Sean Mahan 2003 Tampa Bay 168
Brennan Curtin 2003 Green Bay 212
Mike Gandy 2001 Chicago 68
Luke Petitgout 1999 Giants 19
Jerry Wisne 1999 Chicago 143
Mike Rosenthal 1999 Giants 149
Aaron Taylor 1994 Green Bay 16
Tim Ruddy 1994 Miami 65
Lindsay Knapp 1993 Kansas City 130
Gene McGuire 1992 New Orleans 95
Mirko Jurkovic 1992 Chicago 246
Tim Ryan 1991 Tampa Bay 136
Tim Grunhard 1990 Kansas City 40
Mike Brennan 1990 Cincinnati 92
Dean Brown 1990 Indianapolis 316
Andy Heck 1989 Seattle 15
Tom Rehder 1988 New England 69
Chuck Lanza 1988 Pittsburgh 70
Wally Kleine 1986 Washington 48
Mike Perrino 1986 San Diego 209
Mike Kelley 1985 Houston 82
Larry Williams 1985 Cleveland 259
Neil Maune 1984 Dallas 249

UND.com

It's not a far-fetched claim. And as Martin continues to shoot up draft boards across the NFL, one of the biggest focuses of this offseason will be how the Irish replace their two-time captain and anchor of the blind side.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Ronnie Stanley had a promising 2013 season at right tackle.

The first candidate is Steve Elmer. As a true freshman, Elmer spent most of the season as a key reserve at both guard and tackle, until slid inside to replace an injured Christian Lombard at right guard. But at 6'5.5" and 317 pounds, Elmer is the prototype left tackle Martin wasn't. He's got athleticism and speed. After a promising first season, he's a prospect  whom the staff absolutely loves on and off the field. 

Martin went from redshirt to starter. Another candidate to make that move is Mike McGlinchey. If Elmer fits the mold, McGlinchey busts it, with his 6'7.5" 290-pound frame—big even for NFL standards.

Kelly has always raved about the athleticism McGlinchey possesses, joking during his signing-day press conference that Mike Brey might want him to play the low post for the basketball team (not too far-fetched after watching the Irish this season). Kelly kept McGlinchey on the sidelines this season, but he talked about his unique skill set in December.

"He can play tight end, he's that athletic," Kelly said during bowl prep, per Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com. "He throws the ball better than half our quarterbacks." 

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If McGlinchey is too good to keep off the field, perhaps the best solution to get the team's best five linemen on the field is pushing Ronnie Stanley to left tackle. Stanley's improvement in the offseason forced Lombard inside to guard after starting every game of the 2012 season at right tackle, and the Las Vegas native delivered an impressive redshirt freshman season.

At 6'5.5", 318 pounds, Stanley is another lineman who fits the left-tackle mold, an amazing personnel feat, considering the Irish looked like they have five guards lined up during their BCS Championship Game run. 

A line with McGlinchey at right tackle, Lombard starting at guard, Nick Martin anchoring the group at center, with Steve Elmer and Stanley on the left side puts an impressive group together on paper.

Veterans Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty will bring reserves with experience to the interior positions, while Elmer and Lombard could push outside or freshman Quenton Nelson could fight for playing time right away.  

But replacing Martin is no easy task. While the future is bright along the offensive line, even back-to-back great recruiting cycles by Kelly and Hiestand doesn't make finding a replacement for an all-time great easy. 

That has to be blamed on Martin. He always did make things look too easy. 

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