Zack Martin

How we got here: Offensive line


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.


Run Game:
189 rushes for 822 yards.
114th in Rush Attempts
66th in YPC (4.35)
91st in Yards Per Game (137.0)

Pass Game:
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.


Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.



Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”