Notre Dame Football: Goodbye Zack Martin, the Irish's Underrated Iron Man
To get an idea of how quietly Zack Martin's Notre Dame career began, consider that even the Irish football staff was spelling his name wrong.
During Martin's redshirt freshman season, a year where the Notre Dame football program transitioned from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, the Indianapolis native was listed as "Zach" on the team's official roster.
Just a few months later, Martin surprised many when his new head coach tabbed the freshman as his opening day left tackle. Now, four seasons and 52 games later, Martin will start his final game for the Fighting Irish, the culmination of a record-setting career that should have him remembered among the great offensive linemen in the program's storied history.
Before we say goodbye to Martin, let's take a final look at one of the most underrated players in college football.
Martin's start against Stanford on November 30 set the school record for most in school history, passing offensive lineman Sam Young, who played for Charlie Weis from 2006-09. When Martin takes the field against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, he will have started 50 games at left tackle, shifting over to the right side twice early in his career.
Martin's iron man act is hardly anything new. In fact, he might have a lifetime streak alive.
According to Dan Murphy of 247Sports.com, Martin said, "Not here. ... Never missed a game in high school. I don’t know if I did in grade school either. Maybe never."
That toughness was never more important than this season. Martin saw his younger brother Nick go down with a season-ending knee injury. He saw the same thing happen to friends Christian Lombard and Chris Watt.
Partnered with four first-year starters in Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley, Martin's played more games than the rest combined.
With Martin also starting in four bowl games, unless the college football season is extended, Martin's record doesn't appear to be going anywhere.
Martin's leadership capabilities were evident from the moment he stepped on campus. Not the most vocal of players, he's still just the 18th two-time captain in Notre Dame history.
Tasked with anchoring a unit that needed to replace two starters off of last season's 12-1 squad, Martin took charge of a young offensive line over the summer. He laid the groundwork for this year's impressive line play, especially considering the injuries that have ended the seasons of starters Christian Lombard, Nick Martin and Chris Watt.
Head coach Brian Kelly talked about Martin's work this summer in getting the team's five freshmen linemen up to speed. Effort that has come in handy as the team has had to play new starters at every position but Martin's left tackle spot.
According to Andrew Owens of 247Sports.com, Coach Kelly said:
The stories that I've heard this summer are absolutely incredible. As a unit, the starting offensive line would stay together driven by Zach to wait for the freshmen to get out of class this summer. ... Because of him, he's been able to up the play of all of our younger players exponentially. He's made others around him better.
Leadership and longevity are impressive, but they underscore the dominance that Martin's played with this season. For the fourth straight season, Martin has been named Notre Dame's offensive lineman of the year, the only player in school history to win the award more than twice.
Martin was named a second-team Walter Camp All-American last season, but found himself behind Jake Matthews and Tyler Lewan on most awards lists this season. Still, that didn't keep offensive line coach Harry Hiestand from stating unequivocally:
"He's the best offensive tackle in college football," Hiestand said.
Postseason beauty pageants don't always show Martin at his best, but perhaps this stat provided by Notre Dame sports information does.
The Irish played against Shilique Calhoun (MSU), Frank Clark (Michigan), Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Kyle Van Noy (BYU) and Leonard Williams (USC). That elite group combined for 103.5 TFLs and 46 sacks this season.
Against Martin and the Irish offensive line? No sacks and just 3.5 TFLs.
While it's still early, most NFL mock drafts have Martin slotted anywhere from late in the first round to early in the second. At 6'4", 308-pounds, Martin lacks the ideal size of a franchise left tackle, part of the reason why some see his career in the NFL at guard.
Most NFL scouts think Zack Martin's best NFL position will be on the inside, but he will certainly get a look at OT.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) December 24, 2013
Still, if you're looking for an appraisal of Martin's skills, Hiestand, who coached the Chicago Bears offensive line for five seasons, stated a clear case.
"He does everything," Hiestand said. "Power plays, runs inside zone, outside zone. He’s a physical presence on the left side in the running game and he’s an excellent pass protector. I’d love to see the guy that somebody thinks is better than him, because I haven’t seen him."
With NFL scouting departments just getting started putting together their big boards, Martin has plenty of time to impress potential bosses. That'll start at the Senior Bowl, where he and best buddy Chris Watt will participate.
If his career in South Bend is any indication, Martin might fly under the radar at first glance. But don't be surprised if he ends up making an NFL team just as happy as he did Notre Dame.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.