Best of the Best: Kelly's O-Line

Today's top five from the Brian Kelly era features a position group that has improved its overall performance each season since the head coach took over in 2010. An all-time program great tops our list -- multiple times.

Our summer preview series (95 consecutive days of Irish articles leading up to the outset of August camp) begins on May 1. Until then, we'll take a look back and the best of the best from Brian Kelly's four seasons in South Bend.

We'll even take time to examine the flip side of that equation.

Next in the series: Kelly's top single-season performances from offensive linemen -- AKA, The Zack Martin Invitational.

#1 Zack Martin 2013, #2 2012, #3 2011

Ranked as Notre Dame's No. 1 overall player last season per Irisheyes.com (and anyone else paying attention).

Martin capped his Irish career with a fourth consecutive Guardian of the Year Award as the team's top offensive lineman, a feat that will likely never be duplicated (no previous player has won the award more than twice). Had Notre Dame not been out of national contention by the end of September, the future first round draft choice would doubtless have earned All-America honors for his efforts. As it stands, he's been robbed of that honor at least twice, if not three times during his illustrious but often overlooked Irish career.

Martin's performances vs. Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- the nation's best defensive player last fall -- and Stanford's Trent Murphy, one of the game's best pass rushers, solidified his status nationally as a big-time offensive tackle.

In South Bend, there was never any doubt.

2012: Finished fourth behind Manti Te'o, Louis Nix, and Tyler Eifert on our list of top 10 performers in this, the program's best season since the early 1990s. Martin was inexplicably left off every All-America team with the exception of his second team nomination by the Walter Camp Foundation -- they apparently watch football games.

Martin was awarded Top 10 player status per Irisheyes.com following 11 of the team's 13 contests in 2012.

2011: Earned third-team All-America nomination on my FWAA ballot but was not recognized nationally. Ranked among the team's top 10 players in each contest with the exception of the season-finale at Stanford, a 28-14 Cardinal victory.

Martin finished No. 4 overall (Michael Floyd, Jonas Gray, Robert Blanton) on the Irisheyes.com post-season Top 10 list following film reviews.

#4 -- Chris Watt 2013 and #5 2012

Watt finished 12th among all Irish players per this site following extensive film reviews in 2012 and actually placed higher, 11th overall in 2011 as reviewed below, but he had more competition at the top in the magical season of 2012.

Endeared himself to the fan base as the only true mauler up front during the Kelly era (and if you'd like to include the Charlie Weis era, feel free). In fact, Watt, along with the technically sound Martin, were the toughest old school offensive linemen to suit up in South Bend since center Jeff Faine left campus as a senior following the 2002 season.

Watt ranks among the five best offensive linemen at Notre Dame since the turn of the century, trailing only Martin and Faine, and arguably former offensive tackle Ryan Harris and guard Dan Stephenson.

He finished 2013, his best season, ranked No. 4 overall among all Notre Dame players by Irisheyes.com

Honorable Mention

-- Zack Martin 2010: Ranked as the team's fifth-best overall player per Irisheyes.com film reviews and was awarded the team's Guardian of the Year Award as a redshirt-freshman, a program first. Remarkably, he never relinquished that mantle through his fifth and final season of 2013.

-- Braxston Cave 2012: Named third-team All-America by the Associated Press, The Sporting News and CBSsportsline.com. Ranked as Notre Dame's third-best offensive lineman and it's 13th best player overall by Irisheyes.com.

--Others Considered: Nick Martin (2013), Taylor Dever (2010, injuries knocked him from contention), Chris Watt (2011)

Next in our Best of the Best series: The Kelly era defensive linemen...

Previously in the series: Wide Receivers

Previously in the series: Running Backs

Previously in the series: Tight Ends

Previously in the series: Quarterbacks

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