BYU Football: Freshman running back LJ Martin’s surprising path to BYU
In the middle of preseason training camp, BYU backup quarterback Ryder Burton was talking about two other newcomers to the 2023 Cougars football team — tight end Jackson Powers and receiver Jojo Phillips — when he suddenly pointed out another freshman who was getting some Additions work after practice.
“That guy over there, number 27, is quite the player,” said Burton. “It’s special.”
“I thought he played more mature than a true freshman. We were bragging about how good he was, and he was a bit like Tyler Alger in some of the runs and the vision he had.” —BYU coach Kalani Sitake on L.J. Martin
The man running back LJ Martin, who BYU fans learned in Saturday’s 14-0 win over Sam Houston was exactly what Burton described. The true freshman from El Paso, Texas, saved BYU’s offense late in the third quarter when it was going nowhere and finished with 91 yards on 16 carries.
It was the most rushing yards by a BYU freshman since Jamaal Williams—now a member of the New Orleans Saints—gained 104 against Idaho in 2012. It was the fifth-most rushing yards by any BYU player in his first game in a Cougar uniform.
“The O line plugged their tails and it felt like the holes were wide open when I was in it,” Martin said modestly. “Kidon (Slovis) was guiding me, making sure I knew what I was doing, because I struggled a little bit. Everyone did their part. The receivers were blocked. I mean it was a team effort all around.
After the game, head coach Kalani Setaki said his ill-advised mock appeal didn’t produce the spark his team needed, so he went with an unproven freshman who was so good at fall camp that his performance required seeing game time in an opener.
“I thought he played more mature than a true newcomer,” said Sitake. We were bragging about how good he was, and he looked a bit like Tyler Alger in some of his runs and the vision he had.”
Tyler Alger? That’s high praise, considering the former player now with the Atlanta Falcons set the single-season rushing record for BYU in 2021 with 1,601 yards.
Then again, the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder from Canotello High School in El Paso has been showered with praise since arriving in Provo last June and becoming roommates with receivers Darius Lassiter and Kellan Marion and tight end Ray Paolo.
“We love him to death,” Dion Smith said at camp. “We’re trying to give him all the pointers and little things we can.… Especially as he’s a new student, he’s learning fast. I’m excited to see his future because I feel his bar is very high.”
Last Saturday’s performance was the stuff dreams are made of, and Martin freely admits that he had “always dreamed of it, and perhaps never expected it to happen”.
The key to keeping it going, he said, was to “try to keep a good head on my shoulder” and to “try to take in as much as possible” from guys like Slovice, Smith and RB1 Aidan Robbins.
“They’ve taught me a lot in the few months I’ve been here,” Martin said. “that means alot to me.”
Who is this child?
His first name is John Martin II, but since his father’s name is John Martin, he uses “LJ” – which stands for Little John. He said his extended family also has Little Jeff and Little Will.
Martin’s parents were college athletes. His father, an African American, played basketball, and his mother, Genevieve, who was of Hispanic descent, played softball.
“Since my dad played basketball in college — with players like Tony Gonzalez and Chauncey Billups — that’s what we did growing up,” Martin said. “I didn’t start playing soccer until my freshman year. That’s when I put basketball aside and said I’d focus on soccer. This is my future.”
Indeed it was.
Martin was a beast at Canotello, racking up 5,949 yards and 60 touchdowns in his career there. He was a four-star candidate in the 247 Sports Composite rankings and was ranked #37 in the country by this recruiting outlet.
Martin originally committed to Texas Tech after his junior season, then to Stanford and was a long-term Cardinal commitment for several months until Stanford head coach David Shaw resigned, ironically, moments after BYU beat the Cardinals 35-26 in late November 2022. He rushed for 358 yards — averaging 7.2 yards per carry — and Martin noted.
“Coach Shaw quit, and sure enough a couple of days later Coach (Tyson) McDaniel reached out to him, because he’s an El Paso native,” Martin said, referring to a Cougars offensive analyst. He was like, ‘Are you interested in BYU? My dad used to say: Whatever you do, say yes, they run the ball. They’ve got these big linemen. They’ll ban you.
BYU linebackers coach Harvey Onga later called BYU, and a week later Martin made his official visit to BYU. Met Burton, Phillips and fullback Seal Essera on the visit and “I really like them, I really like the place”.
After a tour of the campus and some discussions with several coaches, his interest grew.
“I spoke with the coaching staff and I can say they are good people. They took care of me as a person. I just felt like I was going to be taken care of. That’s why I was interested,” he said.
One small tie for BYU
Although he was a “mostly basketball family” growing up, Martin knew a lot about soccer because his uncle played and coached at nearby New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Martin said he also emphasized the Cougars as a “big program”.
BYU’s ownership and support by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes as no surprise, since one of Martin’s best friends on the traveling basketball team, Ricky Patterson, is a member of the church.
“We used to play everywhere, but he would never play on Sundays, because that was part of his religion and his church,” Martin said. “So I already knew a few things about Brigham Young University, from Ricky.”
Patterson is currently on a church mission, but his family moved to Pleasant Grove a few years ago and they’ve already hosted Martin for Sunday dinner a few times.
Martin said his biggest “culture shock” was the demographics of Utah. He said he is used to being around mostly Hispanic and Latino people.
“Just walking around and seeing almost entirely Caucasian people was a little bit different,” he said. “But everyone is really nice. I would say it’s the same as El Paso in that respect, just really nice people.
When asked during fall camp what role he anticipates in 2023, Martin spoke as if he would only get a few carries, perhaps in bangs. But prospective RB3 Hinckley Robati suffered a knee injury during the second scrimmage, and Martin rose on the depth chart.
“I’m just trying to help these people,” he said in mid-August. “If they need a break, and I’m the one who does, that’s great for me.”
Make an early start at camp, then the opening
Those who were paying attention at fall camp knew Martin would get his chance early. Roderick said the same thing after week two, and Slovice did his best to salute The Young One for his play in the first scrimmage.
“It’s more than very good,” said Roderick. “LJ is one of our best players and you’ll see a lot of him this year. He’s going to play, he’s proven that early in camp and then he keeps getting better every day.
For his part, Onga was not surprised by Martin’s early success.
“Honestly, the kid is doing everything right, which is great for a guy who came in the summer and tried to pick up this offense and learn everything within a short period of time,” Onga said. “That’s the thing that impressed me the most. Not many real freshmen come in late and be able to grasp the rules of the whole game the way he did.
Onga said Martin’s early understanding of the rules of the game was the reason the coaches trusted him on Saturday.
“Despite his large size, he’s got really, really good feet,” Onga said. “He’s got great hands, too. And I love the way he runs. He’s a smooth runner despite his big size.”
Roderick reminded viewers on his show “Coordinators’ Corner” Monday that the coaches had been planning on making an early impact for Martin all along.
Roderick said: “We had a plan to play with him in the second quarter, and we will see how he will do, and if he performs well, we will make him touch more touches in the second half.” “So yeah, he just took advantage. Once he got the hot hand, we kept giving him the ball and he did a great job. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry in a game where we were struggling for yards. He gave us a spark.”