20 for a Title: The Left-Siders

19 days remain before Notre Dame kicks off its 2013 campaign and Irisheyes.com has identified 20 key developments, players, or collection of competitors for the program is to take the next step, from runner-up, to champion. Second in the series: can the Irish "left siders" emerge as the nation's best?

"This is left side!"
"Strong side!"
"Left side!"
"Strong side!"

-- Practice field exchange in the movie, Remember the Titans

The chills-down-the-spine movie moment quoted above was between a left-side tandem of defenders on the historically dominant defense of T.C. Williams High School (Alexandria, VA).

Notre Dame's left-sider offensive line tandem of Zack Martin and Chris Watt can take similar pride in having their side of scrimmage on lockdown. And after emerging as one of the nation's best in 2012, the pair will again carry a heavy load on their massive, veteran shoulders this fall.

"We're hoping to try something to the right," joked offensive coordinator Chuck Martin of the offense's over-reliance on his 'left-siders' last fall. "I really would be disappointed if it was as unbalanced as it was a year ago. I really think that we're going to be more physical on that side of the ball, and we're going to have more opportunities to run right.

"But you have Watt and Zack, and if you want to lay your head on the pillow at night (and bank on) a big play late in a game, we'd all be pretty foolish not to try to run behind Zack and Watt, but I think there will be definitely more balance as far as right and left in the run game, no doubt."

Balanced, but with a nod to where their bread is buttered. When you have top level national talent, you take advantage of it.

"Zack is the best offensive tackle in the country in my estimation," said head coach Brian Kelly. "He's the best offensive tackle because his athletic ability, his strength, his understanding of the position, what he does for his team, the way he teaches and leads. He's the best offensive tackle because he works so well with the guy next to him that he knows so well and works with him, together with Chris Watt.

"Chris is a different player. Chris is a much more straight line, physical, knock-you-in-the mouth kind of player," Kelly continued. "Zack can play that style. If you watched him against Alabama he played that way, but he can be a guy out in space and screens. They're a great complements to each other. More than anything else they're just really, really good football players. They're two of the best offensive linemen in the country."

Martin has been for the better part of two seasons and could have moved on as a second day NFL Draft pick last April. He returned instead to finish off one of the most decorated careers in program history.

"When he decided to come back I was really excited about it," said Martin's younger brother, Nick, the likely starting center for 2013. "He's a great player, he's going to be a four-year starter, so even just the opportunity to learn from him more, it's awesome.

"You could tell in his gut he wanted to come back to a great situation," the younger Martin continued. "(Offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand, is an unbelievable coach; only going to make him better. (Zack's) been starting with his best friend next to him at left guard for the past three years, too. Finishing out with him, playing with me. In the end he knew what he wanted to do."

Among the Best

Blessed with good health, and barring a major upset (by Watt), Martin will likely earn his fourth straight Guardian of the Year award as the program's top offensive linemen. The fact that he won the honor as a redshirt-freshman in Kelly's initial season of 2010 is impressive; the likelihood of anyone in the next 100 years likewise winning such an award *four straight times is minuscule.

(*No Notre Dame player has been decorated with four post-season awards in program history, and only three have previously received three such designations: Martin, RB Joe Heap as a first-team Academic All-American in 1952-54 and RB Allen Pinkett as the team's Monogram Club MVP, 1983-85.)

Martin though isn't concerned with accolades, or even the popular talk around the program's walls of being better than last year's edition. He's focused on daily improvement up front, and that begins with the popping of helmets and pads.

"I think we made a transition a bit last year to be more physical," he said. "People saw that as the year went on, kind of taking the identity of being a physical offensive line. We've been working all summer, been drilling it like crazy and continuing to follow that trend of being a physical line."

The physical aspect of football comes naturally to Martin's left-side mate (and off-campus roommate), Watt.

"He just stick you," said Watt's classmate Dan Fox, a two-year starter at inside 'backer. "It's like a bowling ball coming at full speed. He's just nasty."

With the nasty coming naturally, for Watt, the summer months meant an opportunity to work on nuance…well, sort of.

"The biggest thing for me watching the film from last year was I was backing up a little too much in pass protection," Watt said. "So to stand my ground a little bit more. We did a tremendous amount of drills this summer just focusing on a lot of pass protection stuff and that should benefit the whole O-Line."

In other words, correct poor technique with more physicality?

"There's more to it than that, but, yeah," he laughed.

Martin has started 39 straight games, (every game of the Kelly era). Watt another 26 (two consecutive seasons worth), playing in all 39 as well. Their approach, toughness, and dedication ensures Notre Dame's left side will remain the chief method of transport for 2013.

"They take great care of themselves," said Kelly. "They're committed to being in great shape. They take care of all of the things that they need to off the field as well. They live the right way."

The right way, with the left side on lockdown as a result.


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