Spotlight shines on sophomore in loaded Rutgers running backs rotation
It wasn’t always this easy for Robert Martin.
One glance at the box score of his line in the Rutgers football team’s 55-52 comeback triumph past Indiana last week might lead to the idea that the sophomore running back has been doing this from the moment he crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania and into Piscataway.
After playing the wait game behind a bevy of running backs, nothing stopped Martin when he got his chance midway through his true freshman season in 2014.
But back in the first game of his senior year at Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) High School, Martin’s final season and high school career came to a crushing end when he tore his ACL.
Martin, who racked up 12.2 yards per carry to go with 18 touchdowns as a sophomore before rumbling for 1,812 yards as a junior, could only hit the rehab routine running.
The reason why? He envisioned himself taking carries immediately for the Scarlet Knights when it came time for training camp — even after the injury.
“Last year, I got to play. I was grateful,” Martin said. "It wasn’t no big deal to me because before I came to Rutgers, I was telling myself I was gonna play as a true freshman — and I’m gonna work my tail off to play as a true freshman."
Now, he looks like the featured back.
Ever since he came on for Rutgers with 434 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns last year, Martin hasn’t looked back — he’s only gotten better.
In the midst of a crowded running backs rotation, Martin has had to deal with the evenly distributed carries among the three.
While the split time with senior Paul James and sophomore Josh Hicks has arguably given Rutgers a set of fresh legs in each drive, head coach Kyle Flood largely refrained from sticking with the hot hand.
That was all until last Saturday.
In the Knights’ come-from-behind win, Martin ripped off 124 yards and three touchdowns on 17 touches. A large chunk of the career-high in rushing yards came during the critical stretch of the game in the fourth quarter.
Pinned in the middle of that rotation with James and Hicks, Martin didn’t deny he wants the ball in his hands as often as possible. But the dynamic sophomore also mentioned that the competition within the unit has worked to bring out the best in each running back.
“Every running back in that room wants the ball,” Martin said. “It’s up to our coaches and we do what they tell us to do and obviously it’s been working out pretty good. We feed off of each other energy-wise and if we see one running back doing good, we wanna come back in and do the same thing. So I think it’s worked to our advantage.”
Flood raved about Martin after the Indiana game, recognizing the hot hand and electing to take that direction with him instead of keeping to the rotation.
Heading into Saturday’s 8 p.m. matchup with No. 1 Ohio State on ABC Network, the fourth-year head coach said he could go a similar route depending on the production.
“Certainly, if a guy seems to have a little bit better feel, you wanna give him a little more touches to the fourth quarter. Last week, we did that,” Flood said. “When we start the game, they’re all gonna get an opportunity to touch the ball.”
Martin isn’t the only running back in favor of deviating from the original game plan if one hand is hotter than the others.
James, who had two carries for 74 yards after a long of 72 on a first-half run against then-No. 4 Michigan State on Oct. 10, didn’t record a single carry past that one drive.
A week later at Indiana, James initially struggled with five carries for 2 yards before rumbling 40 yards into the end zone to complete the comeback and tie the game up with the Hoosiers at 52 apiece in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like the hot hand helps because, as a running back, once you’re going, you’re kind of in there, your kind of zone. You’re making your reads, you know what the defense is doing,” James said. “So when you’re hot like that, I think it definitely helps. It helps the team out, you’re able to create more yards down the field easier.”
Whether it is James, Hicks or Martin, Rutgers will need all hands on deck in the running game to keep its offense balanced against an athletic Buckeyes defense.
But if it is on No. 7, Martin is more than ready.
“Me playing last year only gave me more confidence,” Martin said. “So this year, I’m more relaxed, chilled, I know my assignments and I’m just ready to ball out.”
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