Big money man in the trenches
Success and failure on the offensive line are separated by milliseconds. No time to think. See. Recognize. React. Five games into his college football career, Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin knows the drill. At 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, the sophomore is the Irish line's big money man. Guardian of the blind side. Trusted to keep quarterback Dayne Crist clean and upright. It's been a daily challenge. From Chatard High in Indianapolis to Notre Dame Stadium, with a year on the scout team in between, Martin has been able to handle the growth process with limited detours.
"There are things happening each week that he has never seen before," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Martin. "All the other things that he has seen, he has developed and has gotten better each and every time.
"So when you look at Zack Martin as a first-time starter, each week he sees new things and maybe doesn't handle it like a veteran starter, but those things that he has encountered already, he's playing at a high level. He's grading out as our top lineman at this point."
It's about retention. And application. It's about not making the same mistake twice.
"Repetitions in practice," Martin said of the source of his bank of experience. "There's always a couple wrinkles (that defenses show). Every game your confidence is going to grow."
Martin will need every bit of that confidence Saturday when he's challenged by Pittsburgh defensive end Jabaal Sheard (6-4, 260), one of college football's top pass rushers. Tall order for a rookie.
Mike Rosenthal knows firsthand what a young offensive tackle at Notre Dame must endure. The four-year starter (1995-98) developed into a quality lineman with an impressive NFL career.
"Young guys don't have the experience to have seen a lot of different defensive fronts in practice," Rosenthal said. "They're not seeing those defenses at game speed.
"The three steps are: See it; recognize it; get your body in a position to block it. A young guy has trouble thinking quickly enough. They'll see it, but by the time they recognize it, they don't have time to do their footwork to be in a position to block it."
A mistake here or there can lead to an erosion of that confidence. And a sore quarterback.
"Either during a play or right after a play, a young guy will be tempted to second-guess himself," Rosenthal said. "'Did I block the right guy?' After you've done it a couple times, the second-guessing goes away. The longer you play, experience factors come in. I'm not sure I ever got to the point, in college or the NFL, when I said, 'Yeah, I got it.' Only the great ones get to that point."
"You've gotta be confident that you know your assignments," Martin said. "You go into a game 100 percent prepared. Ah, maybe a couple times, you go through a play and you don't know what you're doin', as long as you're goin' 100 miles an hour and tryin' to hit someone, it usually works out."
"That's all in the development of any football player: Did your preparation during the week allow you to come into the game comfortable and confident that you can get the job done?" Kelly said of alleviating the second-guessing. "I know our players feel very good when they go into the games that they've seen the things that we've coached during the week. There will always be a couple (new) things, and you hope that your athletic ability can make up for that."
Martin is the cornerstone of an Irish offensive line that has yielded just nine sacks in five games. Notre Dame averages 293 passing yards and 111 on the ground. The spread offense is a unique attack that is unforgiving for a tackle.
"In the spread offense, there's usually no help," Rosenthal said. "They're leaving the tackle on a island and telling him to block the defense end. The spread puts stress on everyone on the offensive line. You have to be right."
"You work on (the one-on-one blocking) every day in practice, so that it's second nature," Martin said. "I don't even think about it now."
Between head coach Lou Holtz and line boss Joe Moore, Rosenthal was schooled by two of the best trench tacticians to have ever been in the game. They had a philosophy for preparing their players.
"The most important things are consistency in footwork and technique," Rosenthal said. "Joe Moore drilled it down our throats. Everybody on the offensive line knew everybody else's assignments. Knowing what the others are doing helps you understand what you're doing and why you're doing it.
"Through that, I learned to be a student of the game. That really helped me in the NFL. I understood what the offense and the defense were doing. It brought the whole picture into focus."
Five games into his college playing days, Martin may not be ready for or interested in an understanding of the entire picture.
For now, just keeping Crist on his feet would be enough.
Staff writer Al Lesar: email@example.com 574-235-6318