Senior left tackle Zack Martin is one of the more experienced players on the Notre Dame football roster with 26 career starts. And with fifth-year center Braxston Cave (22 starts) and senior left guard Chris Watt (13 starts) back this fall, the offensive line should be one of the strongest units for the Fighting Irish.
The right side of the line, which lost guard Trevor Robinson and tackle Taylor Dever to graduation, is taking shape with fifth-year senior Mike Golic at guard and junior Christian Lombard slightly leading classmate Tate Nichols at tackle.
Martin (6-4, 308), believes the group can be a force, and it required individual focus in the offseason.
“I was pretty familiar with it after the first year,” Martin said. “But I needed to get bigger and stronger. I put 10 pounds on this offseason and thought I should be able to more people more in the run game. Just kind of polishing up my techniques Coach [Harry] Hiestand brought in with the pass protecting and stuff like that.”
But for the big boys to be successful, it means playing as one. An example of that togetherness came on the first day of camp, when the offensive linemen were ready to run out to the practice field but waited outside the gate for freshman Ronnie Stanley to arrive.
"Another thing of Coach Hiestand’s is he’s big into the unit and unity," Martin explained. "We’re always doing stuff together. We’re not allowed to run out onto the field or go to any drill without the entire offensive line. The offensive line is the tightest group of the field and that’s just trying to demonstrate that."
That a number of Irish assistants changed positions, and others like Hiestand were recent additions, hasn’t changed the overall offensive philosophy much. It’s still Brian Kelly’s baby, but Kelly appears to have a lot of trust in his underlings, including first-year offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.
“You don’t hear Coach Kelly talk as much in practice anymore,” Martin said. “Coach Martin is a very well spoken guy and someone we look to as a leader for our offense. He’s kind of taken that and done a really good job.
“We have different techniques with our new offensive line coach, but the plays and stuff for us are similar … A few new protections here and there.”
Many Irish offensive linemen have already gone on record about the differences between previous line coaches and Hiestand, who, along with leading the front five, will coordinate the running game in 2012.
Martin went into a little more depth.
“In the run game it’s of getting up into [the defensive line],” he said. “You think of offensive linemen duck-walking always when they’re blocking, but this is more of hitting them and just running — getting underneath them and sprinting as fast as you can. In pass protection we use our hands a lot more. We weren’t great at using our hands [last season]. We did a lot of catching [the defender]. This is more of keeping them off your body and punching as hard as you can. It’s a lot different than the way we’ve gone over the last two years.”
Over on the defensive line, assistant coach Mike Elston has been working with his guys on hand-to-hand combat drills. That preparation is testing the offensive line as a result. Elston just has to make sure some of the inexperienced players don’t go too far. During a recent open practice, walk-on defensive ends Grant Patton and Kevin Carr nearly broke each other’s arms, prompting Elston to tell them to “take it easy.”
The intersquad battles are sharpening both sides of the line, said Martin, who’s confident Notre Dame will be able to establish the run and then cram it down opponents’ throats.
“We have to play to our strengths,” he said. “We have three offensive linemen back, and like everyone saw in the spring, we have three really good backs. As offensive linemen, we love to run the football. We’re going to try our best to show Coach [Kelly] that’s what we want to do.”