TAMPA, Fla. – Head coach Greg Schiano sees a little bit of Ray Rice when Doug Martin runs. Others see a blend of some of the NFL's past greats like Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith. That's why it's surprising to hear that Martin gets lost fast when it comes to knowing the modern history of the game.
Martin, 23, is a bright, well-spoken man who appears to earnestly think about questions before answering. But his base of football knowledge is limited. He was asked if he ever watched Roger Craig when he started studying running backs in high school. Martin, who was raised in Stockton, Calif., had an uncomfortable smile on his face.
"I don't know who that is," Martin said of the former San Francisco 49er who in 1985 became the first running back to gain both 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in a season.
If Martin's career plays out to its potential, he likely will hear Craig's name come up in comparison.
With the 31st pick in the draft, Tampa Bay may have found that multi-talented runner so many teams covet. He has a wonderful combination of wiggle, speed and power, all incorporated in a 5-foot-9, 223-pound body that looks like it has been put through a trash compactor.
He found his way to the football field without formal training as a freshman in high school and was good from the start. That carried over to four years at Boise State and his first pro training camp.
"He's the kind of kid who you could just drop on a field, run a toss play and he'll naturally know what to do," Buccaneers veteran cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It doesn't matter if he knows much about football. … I'm not saying he's not smart. I'm saying that he just gets the game without being taught how it's supposed to work.
"He can make you miss just standing still because you're thinking about all the things he can do."
Schiano sees similarities with a player he saw regularly as head coach at Rutgers.
"I don't think it's fair to compare him to Ray [Rice], but sometimes I look at him and go, 'I remember that feeling. That looked good.' "
As a youngster, Martin was focused more on capturing the best of Jackie Chan or perfecting a break-dance move than emulating the game's top running backs. "When I was kid, tag was my game," Martin said. "I was kind of a chubby kid, but nobody could catch me … I'd watch all the Jackie Chan movies and try to perfect his moves."
Martin didn't follow football. If it wasn't tag, it was basketball, where he mimicked Michael Jordan. And if it wasn't basketball, it was Pokemon cards ("I had a little nerd streak").
He didn't put on football pads until coaches at Stockton's St. Mary's High urged him. Putting those on straight was hard enough. Nature eventually took over once he got on the field.
Martin runs with a prototypical low-to-the-ground approach that accentuates his quickness and maximizes his powerful body. He picked up pointers after watching tape of Sanders, Payton and Smith. "You turn your legs into springs that way," Martin said.
After a career at Boise State (schools such as Cal and Oregon were late to the game in recruiting him), Martin understands plenty about the game now. In the second preseason contest against the Tennessee Titans, he ran a beautiful cutback move without hesitation when he noticed that the right tackle had properly hooked the defensive end, opening up the lane.
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In the preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins, Martin pulled off an even more impressive move when he caught himself after being hit, put his hand to the ground, kept his balance and popped back up to continue running. "That one Miami run, when he kind of rolled on a guy's back and just kept going, that's not an ordinary run, that's good stuff," Schiano said.
It was straight out of his dancing days, when he would watch street dancing videos and then emulate them.
"I've won a few competitions with that," said Martin, who did just that in December before the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State.
Martin has done enough so far (27 carries, 97 yards, two touchdowns) to prove he should be the starter over incumbent LeGarrette Blount, whose battering ram approach is useful but lacks the explosive all-around game that Martin possesses, particularly in the passing game.
Clearly, Martin has a chance to distinguish himself as an all-around back like Craig. Even if he has no idea what that exactly means, yet.
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