BOISE – It was the Boise State football team’s defensive players who heaped praise and expectation onto tailback Doug Martin when he was a redshirt.
And now it’s the defensive guys who seem to extract the most pleasure from watching what Martin has become.
It’s not that he’s proving them right – or even that he was a defensive player for a short time last year. It’s that they know how it feels to try to stop him.
Wyoming gets that task Saturday night when the Broncos (1-0) and Cowboys (1-1) clash in Laramie.
“He was a pain down there on scout team,” senior safety Jeron Johnson said of Martin. “I’m not sure what the coaches were thinking putting him on defense, but he’s where he belongs now. It will be an exciting season to see what he can do.”
Martin earned renown in 2007 when he routinely “trucked” defenders in the freshman scrimmages and often torched the starting defense while on the scout team. Then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox used one word to describe him: “Whoa.” Others called him “a beast” or “ridiculous.” “Freak” is the popular term these days – a reflection of Martin’s status as arguably the team’s most physically gifted player.
He is among the fastest, quickest and strongest Broncos – and he practices with the same demolition-derby style that he used to plant a couple of Virginia Tech defenders in the turf in Boise State’s season opener.
Martin, the designated starter for the first time in his career, rushed for 83 yards on 12 carries while sharing the load with junior D.J. Harper and senior Jeremy Avery.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” said senior offensive tackle Matt Slater, one of Martin’s roommates. “I’ve been really excited for that little muscle hamster to get loose.”
“Muscle Hamster” might not be a catchy nickname, but it is a succinct way of describing the two qualities that define Martin as a football player – his physique and his relentlessness.
Martin’s power originates in his massive legs, which look like they belong on a defensive tackle instead of a tailback. He squatted 530 pounds this year – third best on the team.
“I think everyone has kind of got a man-crush on Doug now,” senior defensive end Ryan Winterswyk said.
Martin was named the starter this fall – ahead of a 1,000-yard back in Avery and a proven playmaker in Harper – largely because of how hard he runs every day.
“He doesn’t have a half-speed button,” offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said.
Martin’s turn in the spotlight arrived later than those raving defenders figured. He received only 24 carries in a crowded backfield in 2008 and moved to defense to play nickel in spring ball in 2009.
The offensive staff didn’t want to let him go, but Martin was the tailback most suited to defense. He already was a phenom on special teams.
“We all kind of perked up like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Harsin said. “But at the time we all understood that was something we needed to do for our team.”
The experiment was short-lived. Junior-college transfer Winston Venable emerged as the starting nickel and Harper tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the third game of the 2009 season.
Martin immediately moved back to offense. He proceeded to rush for 765 yards and 15 touchdowns – and eliminate any talk of playing defense.
“I still would have no qualms about putting him on the other side of the ball,” coach Chris Petersen said, “but I think his heart is on (offense).”
His mind is there, too – and has been all year – and that’s another key to Martin’s ascension. He understands the intricacies of the offense this season.
That was most evident on the game-winning drive against Virginia Tech. On the third play – the 14-yard pass from Kellen Moore to Austin Pettis – Martin stoned a blitzer who tried to fool him by looping from the edge of the formation to rush up the middle.
The block allowed Moore to roll to his left and find Pettis.
“It was crucial,” Martin said of the block. “I’m glad that I knew what I was doing.”
Martin was all smiles in the huddle on that drive, Slater said. He runs angry – but he plays with what special teams coach Jeff Choate calls “youthful exuberance.”
Martin also did a nice job fighting for yards against the Hokies. The next step, he said, is to turn some broken tackles into long touchdown runs.
That’s what he likes most about playing tailback – at some point, plays become schoolyard football.
“You hit the hole and after that it’s all you,” he said. “You go off your instincts. You do whatever you have to do to break tackles and score touchdowns. It’s kind of an art.”
His colors of choice – black and blue.
Just ask Winterswyk.
“I like to see him chip-blocking the ends,” Winterswyk said, “because I get that daily from him. He’s a physical dude.”