Notre Dame football: Martin a Zack of all trades
SOUTH BEND - You know that you have arrived as an elite player when the media stop trying to peel back the layers of the onion of your own college football career and instead coax you into becoming a scouting service of sorts.
Welcome to Zack Martin’s world, where the Notre Dame left offensive tackle is the de facto expert on the up-and-comers on the offensive line, freshman defensive end Isaac Rochell, the dynamic duo of running back newcomers Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, and especially good friend and reinstated No. 1 quarterback Tommy Rees.
All of them are back in South Bend and ready for Friday’s first practice in full pads after spending the first four sessions of August training camp at their secluded new home away from home — Shiloh Park Retreat and Conference Center in Marion, Ind.
Martin echoes a prevailing sentiment in the Irish locker room that the Rees who will make career start No. 19 in the 2013 season opener against Temple is a genuinely refurbished model of the one whose turnover-heavy tendencies and physical limitations dropped him behind now-exiled Everett Golson on the depth chart last season.
“He’s always been very knowledgeable,” the fifth-year senior from Indianapolis said of Rees, “but going through the first couple of years and learning from stupid, little mistakes have definitely made him grow. (So did) the things that we went through last year.
“Then this summer he was the offensive leader. He had those guys out there doing 7-on-7s and working out, so his leadership is going to be a big part of our success this year.”
So likely will Martin’s. He is unquestionably the ND offense’s star player, a lock to be a repeat captain and the team’s top pro prospect on the offensive side of the ball.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder could have eased into NFL life this season, but the chance to play on the offensive line with younger brother Nick, who has the inside track on the starting center job, made deferring a dream a no-brainer.
“Really good summer,” Zack assessed when giving a summer scouting report on Nick. “He got a lot stronger. He’s kind of got some weird, country strength, so he doesn’t always show it in the weight room. He got bigger. He’s up to 295, so he’s ready to go.”
Oh, by the way, per the elder Martin, sophomore offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley is “kind of a freak’ in a good way; the freshman offensive linemen are “big, talented and athletic guys” who take very well to coaching; Rochell impressed with his strength; and Bryant and Folston “look like they have been playing for the past couple of years.”
As for Martin, he kept pushing to get better, even though he didn’t allow a sack after the first series of the first game last season and was one of the nation’s top run blockers all season.
“I know when I was younger, whenever you had older guys go out there and were excited to practice, it helped the team,” he said. “Anything I can do to help that. And just focusing on little techniques that will make us better throughout the season.”
No more s’mores
Despite having a video team on hand and daily practice reports posted on the web each night, ND head coach Brian Kelly kept the flow of information coming out of Shiloh Park vague and shallow – just what he was hoping for.
“We wanted to focus on ourselves,” Kelly said of Camp No Distractions. “And we didn’t want a lot of talk about what happened in the past. We wanted to focus on getting better individually, getting better as a unit and getting better as a team. We really accomplished that over the last four days.
“This isn’t as much about setting a depth chart as it is where we are with a new influx of players and guys with new opportunities.”
More happy returns?
The most unflattering statistic of the Kelly Era at ND has to be punt return average, which coaxes the question what will the Irish do differently this year?
Actually, that’s kind of been one of the pressing questions each preseason.
The Irish finished 100th (out of 120) nationally in 2010 (Kelly’s first season) in punt return average (5.35 yards per return), and that’s been the high-water mark of Kelly’s time at ND. The Irish averaged 3.69 yards in 2011 and 2.2 last season.
A commitment to playing more starters on all special teams, finding an upgrade at punt returner and tweaking ND’s scheme are all supposedly in the cards for 2013.
“We have not done a good enough job of blocking downfield,” Kelly said on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show recently. “First and foremost, it starts with the ability to hold up, and we’ve got to do a better job of holding up on the perimeter and giving our punt returner an opportunity to get north and south.”
Kelly did spend time with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick this summer, discussing that very topic. Belichick has a strong background in special teams, and the Patriots have ranked in the top five in the NFL in punt returns three of the past four seasons.
No Irish breakouts?
ESPN’s Travis Haney recently concocted a list of the 50 top breakout players in college football, and the only one with Notre Dame on his résumé is a defensive end who now plays for the University of South Florida, transfer Aaron Lynch (No. 21).
That’s not to say the Irish won’t see anyone on the list. In fact, they’ll face 10 of them, including No. 1, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, and three others in the top 10.
Arizona State running back Marion Grice is No. 4 on the list, USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor sixth and USC safety Su’a Cravens 10th.
The other opposing breakout players are Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (22), Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong (26), Stanford tight end Luke Kaumatule (27), Oklahoma QB Blake Bell (31), Michigan defensive end Frank Clark (35) and MSU running back Riley Bullough (43).
Notre Dame defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix grace SI.com’s preseason All-America team.
Tuitt, a junior, was named to the first team, while Nix landed on the second team.