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August 9, 2012

Left side pride linked together

No one would call Zack Martin and Chris Watt mirror images of one another.

Although just an inch and about five pounds apart in measurables, Martin is long, large and imposing; Watt is more of a wide body, although also large and imposing. Martin has a dark complexion; Watt is fair skinned.

Both are seniors with two years of eligibility remaining. They played on the right side of the offensive line as freshmen, but moved to the left side as sophomores. Neither played until his sophomore season when Martin took over the left tackle job and Watt shared time with veteran Chris Stewart at left guard.

They've always been linked on the Irish offensive line, and now, using spoken and unspoken communication, they form one of the best one-two punches in country.

"We came in together and we've been roommates for three years and this is our third year playing next to each other, so we're real familiar with each other and we're able to communicate," said Martin, the Indianapolis native who has started all 26 games the last two years. "Me and him should not have any communication issues."

"It's been great playing next to him," said Watt, a Midwestern boy like Martin, from Glen Ellyn, Ill. "He's a great player. He's really good at communicating, which is important on the offensive line. It's important for us to get the calls. He helps me out, bails me out at times as well with his communication. That's really important as a whole group as well."

Joined again in the lineup by veteran center Braxston Cave, the trio gives the Irish an extreme veteran presence from center through left tackle. Part-time starter Mike Golic, Jr., is battling Zack's younger brother, Nick, for the spot in between Cave and first-time starter Christian Lombard at right tackle.

While first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will make sure no one rests on his laurels during the pre-season, a comfort zone has been established between Martin and Watt.

"It's great having him back, not having to work with a new guy," said Martin of Watt. "When we run the ball, he's trying to kill someone every play. When he gets an opportunity, he'll put someone in the ground. He's kind of our bull in the run game."

The veteran pieces to the offensive line puzzle are poised to build upon the improved rushing numbers of 2011. Notre Dame averaged 160.4 yards rushing and 4.8 yards per carry last year. That's the most yards rushing per game since the 2005 season when the Brady Quinn-led offense was known more for its passing game. The 4.8 yards per carry was nearly a full yard improvement over 2010 and a yard-and-a-half upgrade since 2008.

With the Irish breaking in a new quarterback, at least for the season-opener against Navy, head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin may rely even more on the ground attack while emphasizing a shorter passing game, which is an extension of the run game.

That's where Hiestand comes into play. The no-nonsense offensive line coach is cut from the cloth used to form one of the great coaching personalities in Notre Dame history - offensive line coach Joe Moore - who crossed paths with Hiestand during his formative years as an offensive line coach.

Every Irish offensive lineman seems to say the same thing about Hiestand.

"Intensity," said Martin in a one-word summary of his new position coach. "He's intense at all times. Whenever we're in this building, he's all business. He keeps us on track. That's what we needed.

"There's a little joking around, but he's all business. We're watching a lot of tape. He brings the best out of us, and his intensity makes us want to play for him. We respect him a lot so when he's talking, we pay attention."

"He's a really intense coach, which is great for us," Watt echoed. "He gets after us, really sets high expectations for all of us and wants us to be the best players we can be. He's important to us."

Hiestand, said Martin, brings three other qualities to the equation - a strong emphasis on building camaraderie, a single-minded approach to offensive line play, and accountability.

When freshman left tackle Ronnie Stanley was a bit tardy joining the rest of the offensive linemen before the start of Wednesday's practice, Hiestand waited for Stanley before the group commenced practicing.

"He's big into unity," Martin said. "We're not going to run on to the field or go into any drill without the entire offensive line. Coach Hiestand wants the offensive line to be the tightest group on the field. He's also told us that he's not trying to be a head coach. He likes coaching the offensive line.

"If he makes a mistake, he's the first one to say it's his fault. We're his guys and he's our leader. It makes you feel better as an offensive lineman. He's there for us. Not saying that past guys weren't like this, but if you do something wrong and he knows he's the one who told you to do it, he's the first one to jump up and take the blame for it. It's nice to have someone on your side and standing up for you."

"He's really detail oriented," said Watt of Hiestand. "He'll go through all the film and point out the good and bad things at each position. That's really good for us."

Hiestand arrived at Notre Dame with a more bullish attitude toward the running game.

"A little bit more zone versus gap and pull," summarized Kelly of the blocking adjustments. "We were a lot more gap and pull last year. The two traditional schemes would be gap and pull versus inside-outside scooping. We're pretty athletic up front, so we feel like we can climb to second levels and go track down linebackers."

For veteran players like Martin and Watt, spending more time in 11-on-11 drills is a welcome change to the drudgery that is pre-season camp.

"Usually, we'd do it for the last three or four periods at the end of practice," Martin said. "Now, we're doing it in the middle of practice, three-quarters way through, 40, 45 minutes of good 11-on-11, ones versus ones, which is only going to help us.

"From a football standpoint of getting better, it's awesome. It's Kap (Lewis-Moore) and (Stephon) Tuitt and Prince (Shembo) every play that will get me and the rest of the o-line ready for the good d-lines we'll see this year."

Watt and Martin both are working to smooth out their games, each with his own to-do list. For Watt, it's becoming a finesse player when the situation dictates, which isn't easy for a guy with a thuggish mentality.

"I've been working more on getting angles on guys, more finesse, not trying to be a mauler every play," said Watt, who has earned a "nasty" reputation as a run blocker. "That (aggressiveness) can (work against you), especially early in camp because our guys are a little edgy and want to hit right away.

"So in our pass sets, we over-emphasize our hands a little bit. Being a little smarter player and sitting back, waiting for the defender, and then punishing him. I just want to get after the guy the best I can. Ultimately, we're trying to get the guy on the ground every play, especially on the run block."

For Martin, it was a matter of filling out his frame further while staying nimble enough to protect the blind side of his quarterback.

"I thought I needed to get bigger and stronger," Martin said. "I put on 10 pounds during the off-season. I thought I should be able to move people better in the run game, and that's what I really focused on. And then just kind of polishing up the new techniques Coach Hiestand brought in with the passing game."

Nothing has changed, however, the comfort zone that exists with the left-side tandem of Martin and Watt.

"(Watt) knows what I'm going to call before it even happens," Martin said. "If I miss a guy, I know he's sitting right there. If someone beats me inside, I know Watt -- on certain protections -- will be sitting right there. He'll have my back on that one.

"Same for him. If someone comes outside, I'm there for him. We're familiar with each other when you're playing next to a guy for the third season."

"It's been great playing next to him," said Watt of Martin. "He's a great player. He's really good at communicating, which is important on the offensive line. It's important for us to get the calls. He helps me out, bails me out at times as well with his communication.

"We've been linked from the very beginning."

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