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BYU newcomers are better prepared for second season in Provo

Brigham Young running back LJ Martin (27) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kansas Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan.

Life provides a first time for everything and sometimes football allows a second time to do it better. BYU receiver Darius Lassiter and running back LJ Martin can’t wait for round two. The two newcomers spent moments during their 2023 debut season with no idea what was going on.

“It took me about five games before I had a grasp on things,” Martin told the “Y’s Guys” podcast this week. The true freshman from El Paso, Texas, entered fall camp expecting to redshirt. As practice went on, and with injuries sidelining Hinckley Ropati and Aidan Robbins, Martin found himself on the field, but without a handle on the playbook.

“I was back there (in the backfield) and we are looking at the signals (from the sideline) but I don’t trust myself with the signals because I’m still learning them,” Martin said of his debut moment. “So, I’m out there asking (quarterback) Kedon (Slovis), ‘Can you repeat the play for me?’ I did three fakes and came back out.”

Slovis provided a steady dose of in-game tutoring for Martin, especially on plays when he was getting the ball and which direction he was supposed to go. Lassiter arrived at BYU as a veteran transfer from Eastern Michigan. However, his time with the playbook had been limited, too.

Against Texas Tech, Lassiter lined up on the left side of the field with no idea that Slovis was going to throw to him. He went one way, and the ball went the other.

“I was running back to the huddle and Kedon says, ‘Hey, you can see the signals, right?’” Lassiter told the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “I could see them, but I didn’t know what they meant.”

Slovis settled things

Lassiter and Martin weren’t alone. Keelon Marion, another transfer, and redshirt freshman Parker Kingston were also new to the playbook. So were several big bodies on the offensive line. Considering their conundrum, it’s a wonder BYU managed any offense at all.

The burden on Slovis, a newcomer himself, was immense. Injuries to receivers Kody Epps and Keanu Hill meant the new faces had to play. The Pittsburgh/USC transfer was asked to spend his final season of eligibility running an offense with teammates that weren’t completely sure where they were running.

“Kedon knew the whole playbook,” Lassiter said. “He held it together.”

With Slovis, BYU was 5-2, but after he suffered a season-ending elbow injury at Texas, the Cougars finished 0-5.

Older and wiser

Slovis is preparing for the NFL draft, but those he helped bring along last season, including Lassiter and Martin, are back and most importantly, they are wiser with the playbook.

“I was still in the learning phase last year. Now I know the nuances of the offense and what it’s supposed to look like,” said the 6-foot-3 Lassiter, who caught 29 passes for 365 yards and four touchdowns. “It’s easier to read coverages. It’s a lot of little things that I didn’t pick up quick enough as I should have. Having a year and this spring under my belt, I feel like everything is slowing down for me and coming together.”

Martin led the Cougars with 518 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes and a touchdown. The 6-2, soon-to-be sophomore has added 20 pounds in the offseason and plans to run at 225 this fall.

“My dad always told me, ‘The work works no matter what.’ If you are the last guy or the first guy, you have to work, because other people are working too,” Martin said. “That’s something I always try to do is outwork anyone. Last year I was able to show that the work works and go make plays in front of bigger and stronger guys.”

Despite some shakiness with the playbook, Martin and Lassiter wasted little time showing their ability to make plays.

Martin’s big three

A 45-yard touchdown run at Arkansas: “Those (Razorbacks) dudes were huge. The defensive ends were 6-foot-7 and 270 (on one end), and 6-foot-7, 250 on the other end. I thought, ‘Dang, these guys are huge. Kingsley (Suamataia) had a good kickout block and Waylin (Lapuaho) had a good block up field. I just had to hit the hole and there was no one there.”

A 29-yard touchdown run against Cincinnati: “It was a check play. We were gonna run our speed option. I said, ‘Kedon, check it! Check it!’ They just had a bunch of dudes overloaded for some reason. I was confused why they were doing it. We checked it the other way to a mid-zone. There was no one over there and I just ran right to the end zone.”

A 55-yard run versus Texas Tech: “I was able to make the first guy miss. The guy Darius was supposed to block was running toward me, so I had to bend it back and Keelon’s (Marion) guy ended up catching me. Those guys are my roommates and didn’t help at all. If they would have made a block or get in the way, I think I would have ended up scoring and I would have been thanking them at the house.”

Lassiter’s trio

Seven-yard touchdown catch at Kansas: “It was a great experience — definitely emotional. Just being somewhere where my dad played and where both of my brothers played, having my mom there in a split (BYU/Kansas) jersey brought back more emotions than I thought it was going to. It wanted to win bad, so I could have bragging rights over Quinton (brother, Kansas defensive back), but having that opportunity to go out there, both me and him, it was something we always wanted to do whether we were on the same team or opposite and we had that opportunity.”

One-handed catch vs. Texas Tech: “I do that a lot at practice. So, it kinda wasn’t surprising to me, but you never do that in games like that, so to do it in a game situation, my hand kind of moved on his own, I just wanted to make a play. Any time a ball is in the air I feel like its supposed to be mine.”

A 47-yard catch at Texas: “That was my favorite catch of the season. You never just catch (the ball) over two people like that. I felt like I was in the air forever when the ball was in the air. It kinda felt like slow motion and then once I hit the ground, I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve still got it!’

2024 won’t be a do-over for the former newcomers, but it can be a do-better. The experience on the field and more time in the play book will do wonders for an offense seeking a better second season in the Big 12 which will require everyone to be on the same page.

Receiver Darius Lassiter (No. 5) celebrates with teammates during practice in Provo. | BYU Photo
Receiver Darius Lassiter (No. 5) celebrates with teammates during practice in Provo. | BYU Photo

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.