Rare but not unique. Redshirt-freshman Zack Martin is half-way home following a strong spring from which he emerged as the team's top left tackle. For inspiration completing the task at hand through August, he need look no further than one of the program's top mashers of the past decade.
In 1999, Jeff Faine was withheld from action as a true freshman. In 2000, the Irish needed to replace two-year starter John Merandi and Faine won the starting center job over returning backup junior JW Jordan. Faine's first two opponents? No. 23 Texas A&M and No. 1 Nebraska. Not the easiest acclimation process for a 19-year-old lineman.
35 consecutive starts later, Faine bypassed a potential 5th-year to enter the 2003 NFL Draft.
Starting streaks and play-for-pay action are a distant dreams for Martin, but his rare opportunity to earn a start after a freshman year red-shirt this spring served as one of the biggest surprises off-season.
More important to competition going forward, the change in regime furthers the "best player will play" scenario that fans hope for and one to which top coaches generally adhere.
"Well it's about who we think is the best on the edge, and right now we think Zack is the best guy to protect the left side," stated new OL coach Ed Warinner when asked specifically of the Romine/Martin position battle. "He has the best feet. Of the O-Linemen he has the quickest feet and he's the guy best suited of the whole O-Line to play left tackle.
At left tackle, Martin would play next to unit and team graybeard Chris Stewart, the 5th-year senior has held down one of two starting guard spots for an O-Line high of 22 starts since the opener in 2008.
"Those two (Martin and junior Trevor Robinson) have the prettiest feet I've seen for offensive linemen in this program," Stewart offered in April. "Zack is young but that kid has a lot of potential…a lot potential."
The ability to block in space is key to the team's new spread attack and it's a skill set Martin possesses. The challenge now, and likely through September's four-game slate, is combining the mental challenge of the position with the physical demands of competing on the edge every play.
"They're training us to perform in difficult situations; in uncomfortable situations," Martin explained midway through the spring. "I've been getting the plays down so the biggest thing is putting the mental and physical side together. I need to relax a little bit out there but mentally I'm ready to go."
Martin would do well to follow a career path similar to former Irish left tackle Jordan Black, a teammate of Faine's at the University.
After sitting out his freshman season in 1998, Black won the starting left tackle spot in '99, beating out veteran OL Kurt Vollers. Black started 42 of his next 43 games and his consistent play on the edge led to an eventual 5th round selection in the 2003 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
"He's definitely in the learning stage now, getting adjusted," Stewart said of Martin. "But I keep telling him it's going to come to him once he gets games under his belt."
Faine and Black set the decade's precedent and never let go of their starting jobs. To follow in their footsteps, Martin must take care of business in August, first.