Zack Martin had plenty of reasons to come back next year, which doesn’t mean Notre Dame’s top offensive lineman for three years running didn’t have a reason to leave.
Still, a chance to play alongside his brother Nick Martin combined with learning more under offensive line coach Harry Hiestand combined with rejoining a football program trending upward was more than enough to outweigh a perceived second-round draft projection.
Martin met with Brian Kelly and Hiestand last week to finalize his draft decision after talking about it with his family following the USC game.
“Very excited about it,” Martin said. “(Nick) was a big factor. I think he’s going to have the opportunity to play next year. A situation like that only comes once in a lifetime, so to have an opportunity to play with him is one of the reasons why I came back.”
Martin’s decision means Notre Dame will return three starters on the offensive line next season along with left guard Chris Watt and right tackle Christian Lombard. Center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic Jr. depart from a front that’s been unique if not balanced.
Notre Dame has one of just two offensive lines to have powered offenses that average 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing while allowing 16 or fewer sacks. That doesn’t mean that production split equally behind both sides of the line. Consider Martin a major reason why.
“I told coach that he should have two scholarships,” said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. “He’s been such a dominant, dominant force. We certainly use the left side of our offensive line I’d say at times at a ridiculous rate that I’m not giving any secrets.”
Martin hasn’t allowed a sack since the second series of the season, all the way back in Ireland against Navy. He’s graded out at a 92-percent rate according to the coaching staff and has totaled 123 knockdown blocks. He led the Irish in both categories last season.
Martin, along with nose guard Louis Nix, continue Notre Dame’s recent run of players holding off on the NFL jump when the draft decision pops up first. Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert all faced draft decisions in the past two years, each returning to school. Only Kyle Rudolph left early during Kelly’s three years.
Eifert and Cierre Wood, are expected to turn down the fifth-year option next season, although the tight end wouldn’t commit to that during Monday’s bowl media day. Kelly said Wood’s status for next season is unclear, although his mother Valerie Wood told Irish Illustrated the running back would likely turn pro.
Martin, who lives with Eifert, said he talked to the tight end about the pros and cons of coming back to school. One of the most understated comeback factors may have been Notre Dame’s upward trajectory as a program.
At the start of the season Martin was still new to his third line coach in four seasons. One of his best friends, Tommy Rees, had been suspended for the opener following the spring arrest. Notre Dame was coming off a Champs Sports Bowl loss that left the Irish unranked entering this season.
Now Notre Dame is playing for a national championship.
“For the first time really here, every week you’re just like, ‘We’re going to go out there and win this game,’” Martin said. “To think that we can do this again next year and we’re going to have a very good football team again next year is definitely something that went into it.”