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October 6, 2010

The best . . . and getting better

Frank Verducci said it, but it was easy to say last year.

The former Irish offensive line coach in the final year of the Charlie Weis era declared what a tremendous prospect 6-foot-4, 290-pound offensive tackle Zack Martin was during his rookie season of '09.

"He is a complete package," Verducci said. "He has size, strength, quickness and he understands what he's doing. He's going to be an outstanding offensive tackle."

Blah, blah, blah. Easy for Verducci to say about a player who wasn't playing yet, right?

As it turns out, Verducci's words were not dripping with hyperbole. The kid can play. Boy, can the kid play.

"There are things happening each week that he's never experienced before," said head coach Brian Kelly of Martin Tuesday. "But those things that he has encountered already, he's playing at a high level…He's graded out as our top lineman at this point."

Granted, Martin is one of three new starters along the offensive line, so it's a bit easier for a youngster to grade out high on the 2010 team. But guards Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson are no novices at this game. Entering the Pittsburgh game this weekend, Stewart and Robinson have started a combined 46 games in an Irish uniform.

Martin has five, and his performance has been second to none.

"He's done a great job," said sophomore inside linebacker Manti Te'o, who knows a little something about starting at an early age. Te'o has bumped into the young offensive tackle more than once on the practice field.

"He's very athletic. He's very fast," Te'o said. "That's his strength; he's very fast. Some linemen are fast but not strong. He's very strong, too, so once he gets a hold of you, you're not going anywhere."

It's all pretty clear now why Martin won the starting left tackle job in the spring and never even came close to relinquishing the top spot. He's a mainstay on a line whose best and most consistent play has come from the tackles, including right tackle Taylor Dever.

So how does a youngster like Martin adapt to the most challenging position along the offensive line so quickly?

"Repetitions in practice," said the Indianapolis, Ind., product. "The coaches do a good job of getting us all the looks by scouting the team we're playing and getting the looks on the scout team. So it comes from going hard and getting those reps and just recognizing defenses."

Martin makes it sound so simple. He makes it look just as easy on the football field.

"There are always a couple wrinkles because you can't just play vanilla," Martin said. "But the coaches do a great job of breaking down the film and getting us ready to work."

The Irish have allowed nine sacks in five games, which averages out to about 20 for a 12-game regular season. That wouldn't be such a bad number for a unit with three new starters in the lineup, including both tackles.

Martin underwent a trial by fire in his first start when he butted heads with Purdue All-American defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan hardly was dormant. He made seven tackles, 2.5 for lost yardage, including a sack.

"Ryan Kerrigan is a great player," Martin conceded.

But the Irish won the war, and Martin had taken a major step toward improvement with his first in-game learning experience. The ability to learn from every mistake and situation he encounters is truly a unique asset for someone so new to the college game. His physical tools also help him overcome obstacles encountered along the way.

"Maybe if I step the wrong way and I'm blocking someone else, I can recover and get back to my assignment," said Martin of an example of how his athleticism has bailed him out of difficult situations through the first five games. "It's little things that you have to clean up so you can recover to get back to your assignment. We rep it every day so that it becomes second nature."

Martin has a simple philosophy that gets him through other sticky situations: when in doubt, play harder.

"You've got to be confident that you know your assignments, that you go into a game 100 percent prepared," Martin said. "But sometimes there may be a play where you don't know what you're doing. As long as you're going 100 miles an hour, it usually works out."

Martin will have to turn up the speed this weekend. He'll be facing one of the nation's premier pass rushers - defensive end Jabaal Sheard - who leads Pittsburgh in tackles behind the line of scrimmage with six. Fortunately for the Irish, they won't have to contend with his bookend partner - Greg Romeus - who is sidelined with an injury.

"They keep him mainly on one side, but he's been on both sides," said Martin of Sheard. "(The film) shows him on the right side, but he comes over the left side, so maybe I won't be seeing him a lot."

Based upon his performance so far, Martin will be well prepared for anything Pittsburgh throws at him.

"Every game, your confidence is going to grow, as well as the confidence from your teammates and coaches," Martin said. "It's been pretty good so far."

And getting better.







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