Martin, Watt are iron men for Irish O-line

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tommy Rees and Chris Watt live together at Notre Dame, so the quarterback was sure to give the left guard heat when it looked like something as minor as a PCL tear would sideline one of the signal caller's anchors and best friends.

"You can ask him. I constantly tell him he's limping on the wrong leg or milking it," Rees said. "I always ask him, 'Which leg is it again?' Trying to prompt him to mess up."

It was the right leg, to be clear. And it did, in fact, end up keeping Watt out of the Nov. 2 game against Navy, before he returned the following week at Pitt.

"Yeah, he's been doing that," Watt said of Rees. "Telling me to go buy some milk, things like that. But it's all in good fun."

But such ribbing has the exception to the rule, underscoring just how fortunate and proactive Watt has been with his body. The same goes for Watt's sidekick and fellow roommate Zack Martin, too.

Watt and Martin have been bedrocks up front for the Irish, fifth-year seniors who have started for three-plus years on the left side of the offensive line. They have been through Senior Day before, though this Saturday against BYU will mark their official finales at Notre Dame Stadium.

The continuity has been a point of pride for the linemen, with Watt saying that one of the hardest things he has had to do in college was telling offensive line coach Harry Hiestand before the game against the Midshipmen that he would not be able to go. That marked the first contest either Watt or Martin had missed in college. Watt had played in 47 straight games before that, starting in the last 30. Martin, meanwhile, has started every single game since redshirting in his freshman season of 2009 -- 47 of the 49 at left tackle -- and he will break the school record for career starts if he starts these final three games.

"They have really shown those young players what it takes as a unit, as a group, in the weight room, in the practice field, and how to stick together as a group," Kelly said. "Now on the field, consistency of performance. So they've got two seniors there that have really set a high bar for everybody else to follow."

Other linemen have come and gone -- Notre Dame has seen a grand total of six players start at the other three offensive line positions these last three seasons, with two of them, Christian Lombard and Mike Golic Jr., starting in multiple spots. But Martin and Watt have been the heartbeat of the offensive line for much of the Brian Kelly era.

The duo has become so in-sync over the years that Martin seemingly spoke on behalf of Watt several weeks ago when talking about Watt's injured knee, saying that he himself could feel it improving based on some practice reps together.

"When we're working combination blocks it's either I'm setting it up for him or he's setting a block up for me, so I can definitely feel it," Martin said. "If he's setting one up for me I can definitely feel the difference with a full strength [knee]."

Martin laughed when asked how long it took to develop such synergy, saying he did not know. Taking care of their bodies in hopes of being in that position certainly does not hurt.

"They've learned to eat better along the way. They've also trained hard in the offseason," said Keith Martin, Zack's father. "Oftentimes that prevents injuries. I'm not saying it's 100 percent, but they've learned throughout the years to not just take care of your bodies during the season, but [that] how you prepare during the offseason is important."

Martin and Watt put in extra work this summer with the five-man freshman class of offensive linemen in hopes of accelerating their growth. Martin, the program's 18th two-time captain, said the work ethic has been hard to avoid throughout his career, as he credited his father, a former Kentucky defensive lineman, for instilling the mantra in him.

Zack and his brother, center Nick Martin, said they have never missed a game at any level, though Zack got lucky with the timing of an ankle injury in last year's regular-season finale at USC and Nick is currently playing through a broken hand suffered in his last outing, Nov. 9.

Nick joked that their father had claimed "he had broken something supposedly and played through it" in college, with Keith clarifying that he had played through foot and pectoral injuries during his career 30 years ago.

The durability of Notre Dame's left side has not gone unnoticed, especially by the man whose security has been affected most by this run of reliability.

"Zack and Watt have been doing it for a long time on the left side for us, and to play in the trenches like that and -- knock on wood -- be healthy for as long as they have is unbelievable," Rees said. "When you have that kind of consistency and familiarity up there it makes the whole offense go, and it really helps some of our younger offensive linemen who haven't played feel confident and know they have guys to turn to."