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OT Martin sets tone for Fighting Irish line

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame’s Zack Martin is a creature of habit.

He eats lunch at Martin’s every Tuesday. He goes to Whole Foods for lunch every Thursday. And for the past four years, he’s started at tackle every Saturday in the fall for the 25th-ranked Fighting Irish (8-3). When he takes the field Saturday at No. 8 Stanford (9-2), the 6-4, 308-pound graduate student from Indianapolis who has a degree in entrepreneurship will make his 51st career start — starting every game since coach Brian Kelly’s arrival — to break the school record.

“He brought his lunch pail to work every day,” Kelly said. “Every single day, he was there, and he brought energy. He brought a workmanlike demeanor that was unmistakable.”

Kelly said the two-time team captain has been much more than a dominant player, winning the offensive lineman award the past three years. He’s been a mentor who has shown younger players the proper way to do things.

“He’s a model in that offensive room as to ‘This is how you do it.’ That offensive room, the line room, has got the groundwork set for years and years and years in terms of practice and how to do things. Martin has set that,” Kelly said. “For that, he’ll always have a legacy here, in my eyes, as to how offensive line play will grow here at Notre Dame.”

An example of that occurred during the summer, when after workouts the upperclassmen could have gone to the weight room and finished their workouts while the five freshmen linemen went to class. That’s what most of the rest of the team did. But Martin persuaded the linemen to wait around for more than an hour to wait to lift weights with the freshmen.

“We knew we had five guys coming in who were really talented and we wanted to make sure they were getting the same work in,” Martin said.

“Some of that stuff we were going to do for fall camp and we’d been there before where you’re just kind of being thrown into camp and you’re just learning on the fly. It’s nice to know a little something before you get in there.”

Guard Chris Watt, who has started 36 games with Marin and is his roommate, said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand urges young Irish linemen to try to follow Martin’s example.

“He says we have one of the best examples in the country in Zack and if you guys don’t want to emulate that then you guys are stupid,” Watt said.

Martin doesn’t recall missing a start all the way back through grade school. He credits his iron-man streak in college to hard work in the weight room, even during the season, and a bit of luck. He injured his ankle against USC in the regular-season finale last season, but had six weeks to recover before playing Alabama in the national championship game.

“He’s played through a myriad of shoulders and knees and ankles and elbows and he just keeps playing. I’m not saying a lesser guy would be out of the lineup, but his mental and physical toughness is off the charts,” Kelly said. “That’s why he’s going to have a long NFL career.”

Martin also ranks third in school history with 36 career victories. The only players ahead of Martin are safety Luther Bradley and defensive end Ross Browner, who played for the Irish from 1973-77, both winning two national championships. Bradley had 39 career wins, Browner had 38.

“It says that we’ve had some good teams since I’ve been here. Some great players and good teams with coach Kelly,” Martin said.

Martin said breaking the school record for starts is an honor, but said he hasn’t thought a lot about it. He’ll be breaking the record set by Sam Young from 2006-2009 and was Martin’s mentor when Young was a senior.

Martin anchors a line that’s given up just seven sacks, the second fewest in the nation, even though it’s been slowed by injuries. Freshman Steve Elmer starts at right guard because Christian Lombard sustained a season-ending back injury last month. Watt missed the Air Force game and is playing with a torn posterior cruciate ligament. Martin’s brother, Nick, sustained a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee against BYU last week.

The Irish will be facing a Stanford squad that ranks 22nd in the country in total defense and eighth in sacks with 34. The Cardinal is led by linebacker Trent Murphy, who leads the nation in sacks with 13. But the Irish line has held two of the nation’s sack leaders, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, without a sack the past two games. The Irish haven’t given up a sack in their past three games.

Martin said that’s a team stat. He said the Irish tight ends are doing a better job of blocking this season, as are the running backs, and said quarterback Tommy Rees gets rid of the ball quickly.

“It’s the whole offense helping that out,” he said.

Rees, a good friend who shares an apartment with Martin, said the key to Martin’s success is that he does everything the same way so consistently, jokingly describing him as “simple-minded.”

“He’s very stubborn in his way, but he’s a tremendous player and obviously a great leader. To have a guy like that on your left side for four years has been something special,” he said.

Martin concedes he likes doing things the same way.

“My week is pretty much set the same every week,” Martin said. “I like to get in a routine.”

It’s been that way for four years.