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Notre Dame

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Irish line no longer weakness of offense


– Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin didn’t allow the question to linger.

The senior decided he would not enter the NFL draft and use his final year of eligibility to play one more season with the Irish.

He made the decision because of what Notre Dame’s line has become in a season that ends with the No. 1 Irish (12-0) playing No. 2 Alabama (12-1) in the BCS championship game tonight in Miami.

“The offensive line at Notre Dame, the last however many years, has kind of been the whipping boy of the team,” Martin said. “It’s time to change that.”

A lot has changed for the offensive line since Martin didn’t play during his 2009 freshman season.

Notre Dame’s line is no longer seen as a weakness as it joined Oklahoma State this season as the only units at programs that can automatically qualify for BCS bowl games to average at least 200 rushing yards, 200 passing yards and give up 16 sacks or less.

“We knew all along we could do it,” center Braxston Cave said of the line’s growth into a dominate unit. “It was just a matter of us on the O-line being on the same page and being able to be successful. Once it all fit together it just kind of took off.”

Martin and Cave have been at the front of changing how the Irish’s offensive line is perceived.

Cave has started 34 of 47 games and was named a second-team All-American by CBS Sports and third-team All-American by The Associated Press.

Martin has won Notre Dame’s award as top lineman the last three seasons and was named a Walter Camp second-team All-American. He hasn’t given up a sack since the second possession of Notre Dame’s 50-10 season-opening win against Navy and grades out at a team-high 92 percent.

Martin has also developed into a leader in his role as one of the Irish’s four captains.

“It is really important having him for our O-line,” left guard Chris Watt said. “He definitely leads by example, but he’s also done a really great job this season of being more vocal. I think he understands he has to take on that role at some points as a captain as well.

“He’s really done a great job with the line and the team of trying to be more vocal.”

Martin also did a good job of scooping Notre Dame and Watt about the prospect of having the left side of the line return next season, which would give the Irish three returning linemen from the group of 6-foot-4, 304-pound Martin; 6-3, 304-pound Cave; 6-3, 310-pound Watt; 6-3, 295-pound right guard Mike Golic Jr.; and 6-5, 309-pound right tackle Christian Lombard.

Cave and Golic have exhausted their eligibility and Lombard is a junior. Watt, like Martin, didn’t play as a freshman and could be invited back for a fifth year.

“I saw in some media report that said Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard, so I’m hoping that’s my invitation,” Watt said.

But before the Irish begin to think about what they will have back on their line next year, they will have to contend with a Crimson Tide defensive front seven that leads the nation in rushing defense. Alabama gives up 79.8 rushing yards per game and only 2.5 yards per carry.

“They’ve got a lot of guys like our defensive line, they have guys like (defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix III),” Martin said. “They play 3-4, big four techniques that are physical, that can run and then a very talented nose guard in the middle. Then their linebackers can run.

“It is going to be a big challenge and definitely the best front seven that we have seen.”