ND OT Martin impressing coaches

Zack Martin used 2009 to learn lessons he's hoping to capitalize on this season. Robin Alam/Icon SMI

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The goals for an offensive lineman are to go unnoticed, keep the chains moving, keep the quarterback upright and create running lanes.


It's a pivotal but thankless assignment. At least until NFL draft day, when 16 tackles were selected in the first round over the last three years.


It's far too soon to make any predictions about Notre Dame sophomore Zack Martin. He hasn't played a game. But the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Indianapolis product has emerged as the most reliable lineman the Fighting Irish have when it comes to having quarterback Dayne Crist's back.


"Athleticism," was ND coach Brian Kelly's summation of Martin, a left tackle redshirted last year at a veteran-packed position. "He's going to be able to move his feet and take care of some of those guys that come off the edge with great speed and quickness. He's the most athletic offensive lineman we have."


And the Irish have him for four years. Martin arrived in South Bend last spring with seniors Paul Duncan and Sam Young ahead of him. As much as Martin yearned to get on the field, burning a year of eligibility wouldn't have made much sense.


Plus, he said, there was much he needed to learn.


"I think I tried to soak it all in from those seniors that played last year; I think it was a much-needed year," said Martin, rated the 10th-best OT in 2008 by ESPN Recruiting coming out of Bishop Chatard High School. "You're kind of the best at the high school level and then you're getting beat. You're thinking, 'Well, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought.'


"Once the year starts going, you take your role, 'Hey, I'm going to be a scout team player this year, and I'm going to help make the defense better during the week.' I took that with open arms and thought [2010] would be my year."


So far, it has. Kelly and O-line coach Ed Warinner have been satisfied with a group of 10 players capable of starting. However, the ever-changing front five has a different look right now than anticipated.


After missing a week of action due to a concussion, senior center Dan Wenger, who started 13 games there in 2008, was replaced by junior Braxston Cave -- primarily a special teams staple last season. Senior Taylor Dever got the first-team nod at RT for the first time in his career.


Sophomore guard Chris Watt was moved to the left side, where he wasn't content as a reserve behind Chris Stewart -- previously considered a lock. Stewart, a 6-5, 351-pound fifth-year senior boasting 22 starts, felt pressure immediately and, with a sore neck slowing him this week, relinquished some ground to the 6-3, 310-pound Watt.


"I'm not too bad," said Stewart, a fifth-year player studying law. "No player wants to be second-string. I think that's something good about our program. You have to fight day in and day out to keep your spot, and if you do get injured, come back and get it."


Martin's one of the few along the line who never lost it. Now he's ready to show why.


"We had a lot of good competition in camp, and everyone is prepared to play," he said. "You pride yourself on getting rushing yards, so that's a definite goal. We're going to run the ball and give Dayne time to do his thing in the pocket."