On Sunday, following a mundane 119-yard outing against the Chargers in Week 10, Martin went for another 161 total yards against the Panthers. Even more crucial to the Bucs' bottom line, he got two linebackers to bite on Josh Freeman's game-tying two-point conversion play-action pass to receiver Vincent Jackson, and in overtime he carried the bulk of the load—48 yards on the ground—in the game-winning drive. The 27--21 win was the Bucs' fourth straight, their best streak since 2008.
Jimmy Raye, an offensive consultant for the Bucs, takes this all in with 35 years of experience under his belt. "He has the chance to be special," Raye says of Martin. "And I've been around some good ones." (No joke: He has worked with Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Stephen Davis, Curtis Martin, Thomas Jones and Frank Gore.)
"He can do it all—run between the tackles, get to the edge. He's a very good receiver, and he isn't afraid to pass-block. What really gives him a chance, though, is that he's so humble."
It's easy to keep your cleats on the grass when you feel as if you're playing catch-up, as Martin does every day. Growing up in Stockton, Calif., he never dreamed of becoming a pro football player. Basketball was his thing. It wasn't until freshman year at St. Mary's High, when the AD asked him to give football a shot, that Martin considered the sport.
He instantly felt a connection with running backs because he had been so hard to catch when playing tag as a child, so he watched YouTube clips of Payton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. Over the ensuing years he would try to incorporate what he saw as the best qualities of each: Payton's toughness, Sanders's elusiveness and low center of gravity, and Smith's blend of both.
Still, his unfamiliarity with the game was obvious. He arrived at his debut St. Mary's practice with his shoulder pads on backward. When one amused teammate asked him where the Dolphins played, he guessed Chicago. And in his first game he fumbled the opening kickoff, which was returned for a TD.
The mental part would take time, but the physical stuff—he had that covered. To hone his evasiveness, he spent his summers at a nearby schoolyard, aligning orange cones into a miniature field, enlisting a family member to play defense.
"What other things did I have to do in the summertime?" asks that would-be tackler, sister Gabrielle, a former volleyball player at Howard University. "I enjoyed it for the most part, but he was stronger than me, so it wasn't possible to bring him down."
Martin didn't play varsity until his final two years at St. Mary's, and again at Boise State he struggled to find his place, agreeing before his sophomore season to switch to cornerback because of the team's crowded backfield. By Week 1 that plan was scrapped. In his last three college seasons he had 43 rushing TDs, and he finished his college career with 4,885 yards of total offense. Even then he was considered a project in the draft. His 4.55 40 at the combine didn't help, and it took some serious faith from first-year Bucs coach Greg Schiano—who saw shades of his former Rutgers pupil Ray Rice—for Martin to sneak into the first round.
If those things didn't ground him, then Martin's first four games as a pro did. With expectations high among Bucs fan, his yardage and carries dropped each outing following a 95-yard opener, and in Week 4 against Washington, heading into the bye, he bottomed out with 33 yards on eight carries.