'Fearless' Martin buoys ND's O-line

Zack Martin is learning on the job at left tackle for Notre Dame. Robin Alam/Icon SMI

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Zack Martin's comfortable in his own skin, cozy in his new jersey and content with his fairly anonymous existence on campus at Notre Dame.

Students may not recognize the 6-foot-4, 290-pounder as easily as quarterback Dayne Crist -- the player whose blind side Martin's charged with protecting each and every play -- but Irish coach Brian Kelly's made it very clear that the sophomore is every bit as important.

"Joe Staley who was a No. 1 draft pick I had at Central Michigan rivals his athletic ability," Kelly said when asked if he's ever coached a left tackle with Martin's ability. "But the thing that Zack has that separates him is, he's fearless. You could've told him [to play] guard and he would have been prepared to play that.

"He doesn't get flustered. The very first play [last week] was a sack, but he shut down [Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard] the rest of the game. He's a very confident kid,; he's got athletic ability and again, he's fearless. He'll go out there and compete against anybody."

That's precisely why the Indianapolis product won the starting job this spring without having played a single snap as a freshman.

"Just come out here and compete every day," said Martin, a crucial cog in an O-line that had to adapt to Kelly's head-spinning pace for the offense to have any kind of success. "I knew after last season and [losing] two seniors that I'd have an opportunity to compete and just try to come out and outwork everybody every day and try to solidify that spot."

The Irish offensive line has been the target of criticism for years and there's still ample room for improvement. Notre Dame has given up 11 sacks through six games, though a portion of those can certainly be attributed to Crist at times holding the ball too long while he continues to get his bearings. It's still a process for Martin as well, who spent 2009 on the scout team, but is very much responsible for ND averaging nearly 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards per game.

"There are things happening each week that he has never seen before," 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."

"Oh, they're awesome," he said. "Pretty skin-tight. [Defensive] linemen can't grab it. It's nice. It feels pretty good."

Same goes for the first half of his first season as a starter.

"I feel a lot more comfortable than I did at the beginning of this last six-game stretch," Martin said. "I feel like as an offensive line we're gelling together and feeling more comfortable playing next to each other.

"I'm definitely not [recognized like Crist]. No autograph seekers. But maybe someone will say, 'Nice game on Saturday.'"