Oct 10, 2013, 10:31 AM EDT
When left tackle Zack Martin decided to return for a fifth year of eligibility instead of likely being chosen in the first half of the NFL Draft, Notre Dame received a boost similar to the ones they got when Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o decided to come back for their senior seasons. While Martin might not end up a first rounder or a national player of the year candidate, he will be a four-year starter at left tackle and the team’s offensive lineman of the year for a ridiculous fourth consecutive season, setting the standard for durability and consistency that will be a model for the program moving forward.
Martin’s decision to return was also a key to stabilization up front. The veteran left tackle teamed with Chris Watt to create one of college football’s best left sides, and is such a far cry better than any other option currently on the Irish roster at tackle that it’s no wonder he’s considered a “six-star” recruit. With new starters Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin surrounding Christian Lombard, who has shifted inside to guard, the front was expected to be one of the best the Irish had in recent memory.
Has it been that? Not exactly. But it certainly has lived up to that billing in other facets as well. Let’s take a closer look at the offensive line.
189 rushes for 822 yards.
114th in Rush Attempts
66th in YPC (4.35)
91st in Yards Per Game (137.0)
T-8th in Country in Sacks Allowed (4)
1.9% Sack Rate
Continue Dominating in Pass Protection. Against pretty stiff competition, the Irish have done a very good job protecting Tommy Rees, a quarterback that doesn’t have much scramble ability. Of teams with over 200 passing attempts, only Fresno State and Toledo have given up less sacks.
Keeping Rees protected is a key in a passing game that hasn’t been able to rely on quick throws and has taken more shots down field than any team in the Kelly era. While Rees did a nice job buying additional time in the pocket against Arizona State, he’ll be tested again by Clancy Pendergast’s Trojans defense, a top ten defense in terms of sacks.
Shore up the run blocking. It was about this time last year where the running game came to life as well. The bye week should be well utilized by Harry Hiestand to get everybody more comfortable in the ground game, where the offensive line has struggled sometimes accounting for defenders in the box and getting to the second level and blocking linebackers.
On paper, USC will be the fourth top 15 defense the Irish have faced thus far, amazing considering they gave up 62 points to Arizona State. Get off to a good start against the Trojans and that could build momentum for the season’s second half.
Keep developing depth. You probably didn’t notice, but that was freshman Steve Elmer working in at guard with Christian Lombard. That a freshman would come in to help a fourth year player gives you an idea of just how good Elmer could be. Ronnie Stanley’s growing into his role at right tackle, but a future with a rebuilt left side of the Irish line is coming sooner than many Irish fans want.
Starting to win some games comfortably should allow younger players like Elmer and Conor Hanratty to get more reps, while the rest of the talented freshman class continue to save a year of eligibility. It should also allow Lombard to get more comfortable playing guard, a transition that hasn’t always been smooth.