NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this fourth installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin.
That’s what Zack Martin became for the Notre Dame football program, shortly after enrolling as a 6’4”, 280-pound Under Armour All-American in 2009. The Indianapolis native did not play a down as a freshman that fall, but he played nearly every down over the next four.
Martin was one of 11 Notre Dame players to start all 13 contests in 2010, notching 11 at left tackle and two at right tackle to tally 831 snaps. In culmination of his efforts, Martin was named Guardian of the Year, bestowed upon the Fighting Irish’s top offensive lineman.
He picked up where he left off in 2011. Martin started all 13 games while Notre Dame’s front conceded just 17 sacks and amassed 4.8 yards per carry. He garnered top-lineman recognition for the second-straight season in result.
Martin made it three-straight as a redshirt junior in 2012. The developed, 6’4”, 305-pound blocker earned second-team All-American acknowledgement from the Walter Camp Football Association, as Notre Dame finished the regular season 12-0 that December. And he earned his 13th start of the season a month later.
No. 70 was there when Alabama conquered Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS title game that January.
No. 70 was there after.
Under the capacity of graduate student and football player, Martin returned to South Bend in 2013. In doing so, the fifth-year senior returned as a candidate for the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy. With his longevity and leadership guiding an injury-laden group, Notre Dame’s line allowed just eight sacks all season.
Martin’s final campaign was not unlike the rest, though; it was one of reliability. And by the time it was over, the 23-year-old had started an offensive lineman school-record 52 games.
He was a two-time team captain. He was a starter in 36 wins. He was the MVP of his final bowl game. He was “Ironman.”
He was, however, more than accolades and a nickname in the eyes of Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“[Martin] is the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached some great ones,” said Kelly – per Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune – following Notre Dame’s victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Kelly’s sentiment is not an outlier; Martin is viewed as a first-round pick this May. He illustrated why at the Senior Bowl last month, excelling with technique, athleticism and versatility at both tackle and guard – a position he did not play in college. So while remains to be seen where or what he’ll play at the next level, Martin will draw interest early in the 2014 draft because he carries the traits to fit almost anywhere.
One place he could fit is in Foxborough, Mass.
Martin may very well be off the board by pick 29 overall. Yet until that transpires, head coach Bill Belichick – a Kelly confidant – and the New England Patriots personnel department figure to be in contention for his services.
Here is a closer look into how Martin’s services impact both phases of the offense, courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com.
A Smooth Yet Violent Run-Blocker
There’s something to be said for making a block look effortless.
That penchant of Martin’s game is often visualized in the run.
Martin doesn’t stand out in stature as a bookend – Patriots tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer tower four inches taller. He doesn’t stand out in terms of range, either – 32.25-inch arms are less than ideal for commanding space. But stature and range fail to define the four-year starter when it comes to run blocking.
Albeit at a position where the play moves slower than it does on the interior, Martin proved to be reactionary off the ball over his time at Notre Dame. Whether he was moving straight ahead or pulling into the second level, his short-area quickness and lateral movement were of great benefit to the Fighting Irish backfield – a collection that included future NFL rushers in Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood.
This is, in part, because Martin’s suddenness after the snap often translates into fluidity at the point of attack. He plays under control as he approaches his target, lowering his rear and bending his knees to accentuate functional strength. From there, he doesn’t overstretch his bounds; he doesn’t reach and fall into the line of scrimmage.
He keeps his base consolidated to help him drive even more agile opponents upright, instead.
Martin is light-footed, flexible and fundamental as a run-blocker. These characteristics help him dictate and combo-block rush lanes without being a mauler. That being said, Martin brings more to the run game than finesse.
He brings a mean streak.
This was seen versus Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28.
On a 3rd-and-5 with 12:30 remaining in the opening quarter, Notre Dame facilitated “11” personnel with wide receiver T.J. Jones motioning in to form a two-back shotgun backfield.
The play call was a sweep to Jones, and it was predicated on running back Tarean Folston’s ability to swing into the flat as a lead blocker opposite the 3-3 nickel. Yet it was also predicated on Martin’s ability to lead the inside and roadblock 6’4”, 260-pound Scarlet Knights defensive lineman Darius Hamilton, who finished the year with 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
As quarterback Tommy Rees handled the snap and the interim tailback crossed for the exchange, the play-side back and receiver pursued linebacker and cornerback blocks.
As they did, Martin broke off the line and sought to beat Hamilton to the edge, getting under the defender with his inside shoulder and lunging arms.
As Martin moved diagonally and made his presence felt, he then locked in to extend and dishevel Hamilton. In the process, he put the closest inhibitor on his heels.
That afforded the ball-carrier time and space to turn the corner.
Hamilton wasn’t out of contesting the play. He pulled back on Martin’s wrists to stabilize.
Despite that adjustment, Jones still saw daylight on the outside of Martin. If the interim tailback could widen the angle and eclipse his left tackle, he would have a rush lane through the first-down marker.
Hamilton tore his right arm up and out of Martin’s restriction, scuffing the blocker’s helmet. Martin responded by checking the sophomore in the chest, regaining direction and control of the leverage battle.
Jones pivoted upfield behind them.
In reaction, Hamilton swiveled his back to Martin. That move had consequence; Martin threw him to the turf.
It helped pave the way for Jones to move the chains.
On this particular run, Martin displayed lateral agility, an ability to lower into contact, rapid hands and necessary ferocity to occupy space.
Although he can occasionaly get latched onto the defender’s outside shoulder and overrun into the B-gap, and although he’s not as explosive as other first-round-caliber linemen in this draft class, Martin plays to his strengths.
Those strengths make him viable in the run game, outside or in.
A Technical Yet Tough Pass-Blocker
Martin is a fine athlete. Yet while responsive off the ball, his slide can be tested versus blitzers built to bend the arc around his range, which occasionally leaves him cutting corners or facing the quarterback.
Martin is, however, a technician.
And that helps abate his physical limitations as a pass-blocker, as suggested in the scarce sack totals the Notre Dame line allowed over the last four years.
Quick to his stance, Martin is instinctual in reading the defense. He communicates, he identifies his assignment, and he is swift in transitioning responsibilities when stunts emerge.
Regardless of the situation, Martin understands how to sit in his blocks as the pocket forms. He drops his hips and establishes anchor, even against larger bull-rushers vying to knife through. He is adept in this respect, not only due to tactfulness but due to the core strength that allows him to absorb the punch.
That rugged nature, combined with a heavy first hand and plant foot, aids Martin in disrupting leverage while shadowing his man.
These traits were showcased on Oct. 19 against USC.
Down in the red zone on a 3rd-and-5 to end the first quarter, the Irish spread four wide from “11.” Tight end Troy Niklas stood in the seam for a comeback rub route, while halfback Amir Carlisle flanked Rees in what was an opportunity to test the Trojans’ 3-4 cushion.
USC sugared the safety blitz in the A-gaps, but the real blitz was rooted in the outside linebackers. And off the left side, that meant Martin would be facing 6’3”, 255-pound redshirt senior Devon Kennard.
Reese harnessed the shotgun snap and gazed at his primary read. Yet with the USC front shipping a five-man rush to pressure the senior QB, this also put pressure on the USC secondary.
In turn, the determining factor rested in the trenches.
Martin slid outward to mirror Kennard, keeping his inside foot grounded. He squared himself and awaited the rush move, concurrently holding inside for redshirt senior left guard Chris Watt.
As Rees dropped back and the USC coverage followed suit, the left side of line grew urgent. George Uko, the Trojans’ 6’3”, 275-pound defensive tackle, vied to swoop underneath Watt and into the B-gap, all while Kennard vied to widen pass protection on his way into the C-gap.
Averting those intentions, Watt maintained stance with proper knee bend, positioning his feet parallel to the rush linebacker.
Anticipating the contact and push off, Rees stared down Niklas. But in the immediate foreground, Uko stared down Rees. The three-technique had quickly ripped around Watt to get the passer in his sights.
Martin’s engagement with Kennard was developing more gradually. Kennard barred his left arm out ahead of the left tackle’s shoulder, but Martin’s hands were ready and his frame was keeping pace.
Martin timed his opponent’s rush move and delivered at pad level. He set his feet and forged into Kennard, sending the defender on a deviated pathway.
The backside was secure, but Uko was closing in on quarterback’s front shoulder. So Rees climbed the pocket to dodge him.
Kennard couldn’t dodge Martin, though; he was driven away from the ball as the blocker continued pedal his feet.
As for Rees, he had room to work beyond the outstretched hands of Uko. This gave way to a clean release downfield in the junior tight end’s direction.
It was a touchdown on a five-man rush. It was a touchdown that Martin was an integral part of – not for what happened in the B-gap, but rather, what didn’t happen in the C-gap.
He remained composed to combat the blitz. And he remained in his block through Niklas’ reception.
Now Martin may not have top-tier lateral agility. He may lack the size to command long and lean ends firing from the seven- or nine-technique. Yet ultimately, there’s reason to believe the comparisons to Patriots All-Pro left guard – a former Fresno State left tackle – Logan Mankins are well deserved.
Both play rough and refined, at the same time.
Martin does not fit the NFL tackle prototype due to his height and arm length, but he does fit the prototype of a football player.
He fits the prototype of a football player who could be a first-day draft choice and a first-day starter, regardless of if it’s at left tackle, right tackle, left guard or right guard.
You won’t find flash with Zack Martin.
You will find steadiness.