Dissecting the ascendance of Notre Dame's Zack Martin
Zack Martin continued to climb the player ranking boards and mock drafts in recent weeks, the biggest and most bewildering disconnect has become just how flawed the All-America team selection process appears to be when it comes to offensive linemen.
Not that every elite NFL prospect becomes so because of elite college play. There are body metrics, skill projection, background checks, even intuition that become part of the flow chart of evaluating pro potential.
But hours before the Notre Dame four-year starter at left tackle is likely to become the first Irish offensive lineman to go in the NFL Draft’s top 16 overall since Lombardi Trophy winner Aaron Taylor 20 years ago, it’s clear the lack of qualifiable stats for Martin’s position group and a lack of research by voters helped create the unimaginable.
A grossly underrated and underpublicized Notre Dame football player.
“There’s a lot to like about Zack Martin, and yes it was unjust that he didn’t make any All-America teams,” said Taylor, now a college football analyst for CBS who recently added a part-time job of working for the NFL Players Association mentoring program, helping players transition to life after the NFL.
“Zack runs well in space. He’s a guy who will finish blocks. Sometimes you’ll get a guy who’s a good blocker, and his goal is not to get beat versus his goal being to punish the guy he’s playing against.
“Zack has some of that, and that’s going to serve him well in the NFL. And that was something that was missing at Notre Dame prior to him and this unit that’s kind of developed over the past couple of years. Guys were just happy to be there. There were no guys that really wanted to tip a guy a - - over tea kettle, as a unit.
“I wouldn’t call him a dirty player at all. A finisher, though? I think he has the capability to do that.”
Thursday night karma likely kicks in, and Martin could be part of a historical three-day run for the Irish as it relates to the NFL Draft and its protracted seven-round, 256-man player-dispersal process.
Eight Irish products figure to be picked Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which would constitute the largest draft contingent from the school since it had 10 selections in 1994. That 1994 group, that included Taylor and fellow first-rounders Bryant Young and Jeff Burris, comprises the most ND players selected in a single draft once the rounds were cut to seven total in 1993.
There’s an outside chance this group of 15 ND draft hopefuls could match that number should a couple of long shots sneak into the late rounds.
The surge of draftable talent, three drafts removed from just one ND player being selected, could be interpreted as a synthesis of former head coach Charlie Weis’ recruiting with current coach Brian Kelly’s player development and recruiting. Only Tuitt among the 15 Irish draft hopefuls, was a top 50 prospect nationally coming out of high school. Twelve of the 15 didn’t make the top 100 in their respective recruiting cycles.
More than half of them, including Martin, didn’t even receive a top 250 grade from Rivals.com as high school seniors.
But Martin didn’t blindside everyone. Weis insisted, before he was fired at the end of the 2009 season, that the next star lineman would be Martin. Martin redshirted his only season under Weis.
Kelly saw the high ceiling too, as did Sam Young, a four-year starter himself who was replaced by Martin in the lineup when Young was drafted in the sixth round in 2010.
Taylor didn’t see Martin until he stepped on the field in 2010 and started the first of a now school-record 52 games, but it didn’t take long to form an impression.
“You could see the possibilities right away,” Taylor said. “Anytime a guy starts on the line as a (redshirt) freshman and plays in as many games as he did, there’s just something special about kids that do that.
“Any freshman lineman who plays, there’s going to be bumps and bruises, but the fact that he mentally navigated that says a lot. And then he just continually physically developed. Talking with (ND offensive line coach) Harry Hiestand and just watching film over the years, it was clear he was a special player and an anchor of that unit. He had all of the physical attributes that you would want out of a person at his position.”
The ones Martin didn’t have, he appears to have transcended.
Martin projected as a second-rounder in December of 2012 when he made the decision to return for his fifth year at ND largely for the chance to play alongside his younger brother, Nick, ND’s first-year starting center in 2013.
That second-round projection stayed with him up until the Senior Bowl workouts in late January of this year. The reason was Martin was viewed to be too short, from a height (6-4) and arm-length (32-µ) standpoint, to be considered an elite left tackle prospect, which is the money position on the offensive line.
More practically, it was figured that he might play right tackle or guard.
Taylor, who won the Lombardi Award, after playing left tackle his senior season at ND, at 6-4, faced the same scrutiny and did end up moving inside right from the start of his pro career.
“As ridiculous as the (NFL) Combine can be sometimes, with all the metrics that they use, it’s a very effective tool, which is why they do it,” Taylor said. “One of the things that has emerged over the years is that there’s a direct relationship between length of arm and length of career for an offensive lineman.
“So to play left tackle, the longer your arms are, the longer you can extend, the more you can punch a guy off from being able to grab you, which is very important for a left tackle. He usually plays against a team’s elite pass-rusher.
“The right tackle usually is someone you can run behind a little bit more, because they’ll be a little more physical than the left. Here’s the best way to say it: I think he could be a good left tackle. I think he could be a great right tackle or guard.”
Versatility started to work in Martin’s favor, though. Former Super Bowl winning coach and current NFL analyst Jon Gruden recently called Martin his favorite lineman in the draft.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranked Martin ninth in his final top 300 player rankings. Martin was followed by Tuitt at 27, Nix at 36, tight end Troy Niklas at 59, offensive guard Chris Watt at 163, wide receiver TJ Jones at 169, linebacker Prince Shembo at 172, cornerback Bennett Jackson at 252 and running back George Atkinson III at 271.
NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock has Martin coming off the board at No. 9 to the Buffalo Bills. If that happens, he’d be the first ND player at any position to go in the top 10 since defensive tackle Bryant Young (seventh) in 1994 and the first Irish offensive lineman to go come off the board in the first 10 picks since tackle George Kunz went second overall — one pick behind Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson — in the 1969 draft.
And the fact Martin played for three different offensive line coaches, three different offensive coordinators and two different head coaches could actually work in his favor.
“If anything, it makes him more coachable, which will help him in the league,” Taylor said. “What happens quite a bit, if a guy can only block one particular way and he’s set in his ways, then that’s quite a disadvantage for that young man at that point.
“At Green Bay, they taught me to pass block the exact opposite way that (former ND line coach) Joe Moore taught us to do it. And it freaked me out. I came from a dude who made us take our freaking helmets off to teach us to keep our heads back and not lunge forward, and they were basically telling me I needed to run block when I was going to do a five-step pass block.
“It was out-of-the-world different, but you’ve got to do what they ask you to do. And you figure it out.”
The next three ND players to have their names called after Martin figure to be three of ND’s four early entries. Only Nix — of the group that includes Tuitt, Niklas and Atkinson — will pick up his degree next weekend.
“I had that same decision to make after my junior year, which was an All-American season,” Taylor said. “I personally didn’t feel like I was ready physically for the NFL at that time. I wasn’t confident enough in my game yet. I think that was external interest that was swirling and I just responded to it versus an internal interest that made its way outside.
“I talked with (head coach Lou) Holtz, I talked with Joe Moore, my position coach. They felt if I left, I would be OK, but that I would be better if I stayed. And they reminded me why I came to Notre Dame in the first place, which was to get a degree.
“And I’ll tell you what, when I blew my patella tendon out on day four in underwear up at Green Bay in a one-on-one drills, I was really happy I had that degree.”
Now Martin has that, and it appears a big shot of redemption.
“You just have to look at the film, and it’s obvious he’s an All-American,” Taylor said. “His consistency is what jumps out at you. And while getting that honor would have been nice, the proof will come out in the pudding on Thursday night about just what type of football player Zack Martin is.”
ROUND 1: Thursday, 8 p.m. (ESPN, NFLN)
ROUNDS 2-3: Friday, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2, NFLN)
ROUNDS 4-7: Saturday, noon (ESPN, NFLN)
ND DRAFT HOPEFULS
The 15 Notre Dame draft hopefuls, the range in which theyre expected to be taken during the three-day draft, which kicks off Thursday night, and where they fell in the Rivals.com top 250 coming out of high school:
Zack Martin, OT (unranked in the 2009 class)
Louis Nix, NG (No. 85 in 2010)
Stephon Tuitt, DE/DT (No. 22 in 2011)
Troy Niklas, TE (No. 221 in 2011)
Chris Watt, OG (No. 77 in 2009)
Prince Shembo, LB (No. 238 in 2010)
Bennett Jackson, CB (unranked in 2010)
TJ Jones, WR (No. 141 in 2010)
George Atkinson III, RB (No. 126 in 2011)
Dan Fox, LB (unranked in 2009)
UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS
Carlo Calabrese, LB (unranked in 2009)
Tommy Rees, QB (unranked in 2010)
Kona Schwenke, DT (unranked in 2010)
Daniel Smith, WR (unranked in 2010)
Nick Tausch, K (unranked in 2009)