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August 6, 2014

Martin takes baton from…Martin

In the history of Notre Dame football, there have been an unlimited number of difficult encore performances. Greatness has a way of breeding greatness, but there's no more difficult leadership act to follow than left tackle/first-round draft choice Zack Martin, who started 52 straight games for the Irish and served as a two-time captain.

Intelligent, steady in the boat, understated but respected…Martin epitomized what a captain should be. He could command respect with a word, a phrase or a mere look. His leadership couldn't always be quantified, but you knew it when you saw it. His teammates followed his every lead.

Now Martin is gone, and so too is his tag-team partner - left guard Chris Watt. Fifth-year senior Christian Lombard is the most experienced of the offensive line group, but generally quiet by nature.

So who does the burden of leadership fall to? Another Martin, of course.

"The one guy is the guy with same last name," said Brian Kelly last Friday at his pre-season press conference. "Nick Martin is the leader of that group. It's pretty clear.

"We've got great leadership from Christian, but it's Nick Martin that's really driving that group. A lot of that has been passed on from Zack. That's why I consider (Zack) one of the great captains of my career because he passed on so much of that. They're just following from a lot of what he passed on."

It's improbable - just from a sheer percentages perspective - that Nick, a center, will duplicate brother Zack's accomplishment of being selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys. Zack was the more highly-touted of the two coming out of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis two years ahead of Nick and is a tackle and not an interior linemen, the former of which is more coveted on the next level.

But Nick quickly is developing into a top-notch center with two years of eligibility remaining heading into the 2014 season. When Kelly talked about his offensive line a year ago, he referred to Nick as a returning starter when, in fact, he had yet to start a game on the collegiate level as the Irish opened the '13 season against Temple.

That spoke volumes of how Martin made the transition from backup in '12 to starter in '13 in place of veteran Braxston Cave. Martin went on to start the first 11 games of 2013 before a left knee injury against BYU put an end to his season and began a rehab stint that kept him out of action in the spring.

"I had an MCL and I chipped some cartilage in my patella (kneecap), so I was on crunches until after the bowl game," Martin said.

Yet there was never any doubt that he would bounce back from the injury in short order, and even less doubt that he would assume a leadership roll.

"I learned my leadership from (Zack), my older brother Josh, and my dad," Martin said. "When you have a leader like (Zack) doing everything right all the time, you'd be dumb not to learn from it.

"When you've got guys like Zack Martin and Chris Watt in your position group, guys that started three, four years and the rock(s) of the o-line, you have to take the opportunity to learn from them. People leave and other people have to step up."

Leadership starts with performance.

"The biggest thing (with Zack) was consistency, and that's one of the best compliments you can have in football - consistency," Martin said. "No matter what happens, not matter what the circumstances, he's going to get the job done."

One year ago, before Nick had started a single game in a Notre Dame uniform, his mindset was completely different. Even though Kelly looked at him as a returning starter already, Martin knew his place in the pecking order.

When Martin met with the media during the pre-season last August, he answered questions similar to the way the freshmen sometimes do.  He offered cliché after cliché, cautious not to overstep his bounds and make promises that he hadn't earned the right to make.

Now, as a senior (red-shirt junior), the Martin personality is emerging.

"I think we have very similar personalities," said Nick of him and Zack. "We were raised in a house of three boys. We all got along and we were brought up the same.

"I try to be outgoing. I think I am. (My job is) to get guys together. I like having a tight-knit group. You always have to have the o-line doing the same things, going out to meals, in the film room together, kind of traveling in packs because that togetherness is what makes a unit."

Nick has checked in frequently with Zack as the latter appears to be solidifying a starting spot for the Cowboys. Zack has counseled Nick on how to assume the leadership roll in the older brother's absence. It now seems to be a mere formality that the Notre Dame football team will have a Martin serving as captain for the third straight season.

"It's a pride thing," said Nick of grasping the leadership baton from Zack. "When you get a limit put in front of you, you want to exceed it. You want to get to it and then pass it. It's a passion for the game and the love for it. It's awesome."






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