Zack Martin Makes The Grades

“November can be cold and gray; November can be surly.
With bitter rain upon the world, and winter coming early.
Do you fear the face of the wind? The slash of rain?
Go face them and fight them. Be savage again.
The palms of your hand will thicken; the skin of your cheek will tan.
You’ll grow ragged and weary and wet, but you must do the best you can.”

Notre Dame Football Interview: Zack Martin

This was one of the dozens of narrations performed by John “The Voice of God” Facenda for NFL Films productions, and it’s a “code” that Notre Dame senior left tackle Zack Martin epitomizes.

One of four captains on the team, Martin will start his 36th consecutive game this weekend when the Irish travel to Boston College, and that streak of durability trails only classmate/linebacker and fellow captain Manti Te’o.

November is the time of the year when fatigue and the aches and pains of an arduous campaign begin to take hold. However, when you are 9-0 and legitimately vying for a national title, the second wind comes from the unbridled joy of achievement and wanting to accomplish even more.

“There’s no team in the country that’s going to say week 11 practices aren’t a grind,” Martin said. “[But] the mentality of our team is we’re undefeated.

“There’s energy – teach me something new. Coaches are happy, players are happy. And then when you’re on that losing side, when you’ve lost a couple in a row, you’re kind of down, everyone’s getting on each other … it’s different.”

Martin has been on both sides. Two years ago at the start of November, the Irish were reeling with a 4-5 record, yet after a bye week, Martin and the Irish methodically improved, kept chopping wood and finished out with a 4-0 record. To this day, the win at rainy USC in the regular season finale remains maybe his greatest football thrill.

Last year, Martin graded out as the team’s top offensive lineman for the second year in a row. This year, Martin should be in the running for some post-season notice as one of the premier left tackles in the game.

When grades come out every Sunday from offensive line coach Harry Hiestand on how his players performed individually — proper technique, correct steps, hand placement, footwork, assignment consciousness, making your block, doing your job — Martin consistently makes the Dean's List for an extremely thorough professor.

“He's lapping the field,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly of Martin’s performance. “He's that good on a consistent basis. I think Coach is grading him out in the 90s, where guys are grading in the 60s and 70s. He's just a consistent player for us at a high level, and has been that way all year.”

“I try to be the same guy every day,” said Martin, who prides himself on being a student of the game to complement his physical skills. “Offensive line play, everyone thinks it’s kind of a big, brutal game. But if you watch film and learn stuff, you can make yourself that much better a player just by learning what little keys you pick up from the film.

“I’ve gotten better and better every year. A big thing for players is just getting reps, getting games under your belt, seeing how defenses work, where people are aligned and what’s going to happen next. That just helps me play.”

His consistency in the approach to competition, especially in November, remains steadfast, even though it might be easy to overlook a 2-7 Boston College team this weekend. A main identity of the Eagles over the past 15 years has been strength in the trenches. However, this year among 120 FBS teams, Boston College ranks 118th in running the ball (74.7 yards per game) and, more relevant to Martin, 116th against the run (233.3).

After nearly getting upset by Pitt last week, Martin said the team is more than cognizant of how it will receive its best shot from each opponent. Energy should not be an issue going into Chestnut Hill. On its four road trips this year, Notre Dame has won by an average of 28 points.

“On the road, our team does a great job of getting together as one and going against that crowd and bringing that energy,” Martin said. “We’ve talked the last few weeks that we’ve got to do it better at home, but now this week we’re on the road and we know we’re going to bring it ... I think people make a bigger deal out of it than it is when you play on the road.”

The point of emphasis this week in practice is to maintain aggressiveness. A 9-0 record can be like building a house of cards. The higher it goes, the more fearful you become of it falling apart rather than thinking how much higher it can be built.

“I wouldn’t say ‘pressure’ is the right word,” said Martin on whether the team is beginning to feel tighter with so much more at stake each week. “We can’t go into a game and play just not to lose, and that’s something we’ve emphasized the last week or so. We’ve got to play to win the game and win it big. There’s no pressure being 9-0. We’re confident in our abilities, we’re confident in our coaches, and we’re feeling good.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of being ready to practice.”

For Martin, that’s standard issue, no matter what time of year it is.

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