Eleven games into his first season as a starter, junior center Nick Martin did something his brother has not in four seasons as a starter: suffered an injury that will force him to miss a game. This is not meant as an indictment on Nick, but rather as a testament to the skill, health and luck needed by senior tackle Zack Martin to start in 50 -- soon to be 51 -- consecutive games.
“I was able to stay healthy, which is the good part,” Zack said of the streak. “You get better from experience on the game field, so I’ve been lucky to be out there for four years and getting tons and tons of experience. The more time you get out on the field, the more experience you get. It’s been good for me.”
With a start Saturday against Stanford -- as near a certainty as turkey being served on Thanksgiving -- Martin will break Sam Young’s record of 50 consecutive starts, set between 2006 and 2009. Martin’s freshman season, which he red-shirted, included a bit of foreshadowing as Young was assigned to the freshman lineman as a mentor.
Young’s 50 starts spanned from a start at right tackle as a true freshman in the 2006 opener at Georgia Tech to a loss to Stanford in 2009 in what would be Charlie Weis’s last game as Irish head coach. His freshman season ended in the Sugar Bowl, while his junior season saw Notre Dame fly out to Hawaii for a Christmas Eve bowl game.
“(Young) was great at looking after me and he taught me a lot,” Martin said. “He’s a great guy and played a lot of football here.”
But not as much as Martin will, thanks to the Irish heading to a bowl game in each of the last three seasons and, presumably, again this year. If Martin can keep his health through the physical Stanford contest, his 52-for-52 will be a tough mark to match. To put it in context, linemate and classmate Chris Watt had started 34 consecutive games before missing the Nov. 2 Navy contest with an injury, and appeared in 47 consecutive games.
Only three current Irish -- excluding freshmen red-shirting this season -- could feasibly approach Martin’s mark. Assuming Notre Dame heads to a bowl game in each of the next three years as well as continued health, only sophomore offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (11 consecutive starts), freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith (11) and sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell (24) could theoretically reach 52 games.
Assuredly, none of those three are thinking of such a stretch and the subsequent mark, just as Martin didn’t until media members began asking him about it the last few weeks. Such a focused mentality has defined the mainstay’s time at Notre Dame for those watching him.
“He brought his lunch pail to work every day,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Just consistent, every single day, he was there, and he brought energy. He brought a workmanlike demeanor that was unmistakable. If you talk about the way our offensive line now works and how they work together in the summer, and how we are able to plug in guys now and still be effective, a lot of that has to do with Zack Martin and his approach to every day.”
In addition to the consecutive starts mark -- before Young, held by Tom Zbikowski and Maurice Crum at 48 starts each -- Martin will end his career no lower than third in all-time wins as a starter with 36 currently. If the Irish were to win out this season, he would tie Ross Browner (1973-77), only trailing Luther Bradley’s 39 victories (73-77).
“That says that we’ve had some good teams since I’ve been here, some great players, some good teams with coach Kelly,” Martin said before deflecting the praise as one would expect of someone who carries a figurative lunch pail. “That’s not really on me, that’s more of a team thing, and it’s a credit to the guys here.
“It’s cool to think about that you’ve been a part of 36 wins. You’ve been on the field for all 36 of those wins, which is cool to think about.”