Not since Jamaal Williams in 2012 has a BYU running back made an impact as true freshman, but that’s exactly what a lot of folks in and outside of the program are predicting for LJ Martin, despite the Cougars having a very deep and talented group of experienced running backs in 2023.
“LJ Martin is a standout in camp so far. He is one of the best players on this team. … He has already proven that he’s going to be player for us this season.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
Martin is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound back from El Paso, Texas, who committed to Stanford nearly a year ago but surprisingly flipped to BYU last winter and signed with the Cougars on Feb. 1.
Martin arrived in Provo in early June and has been pretty much turning heads since then, with everyone from head coach Kalani Sitake to starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick to fellow freshman Ryder Burton raving about the phenom from the Sun City.
“LJ Martin is a standout in camp so far,” Roderick told BYUtv on Aug. 15 after the Cougars wrapped up their first two weeks of camp. “He is one of the best players on this team. … He has already proven that he’s going to be player for us this season.”
Those are startling words from a guy who doesn’t dish out individual praise often, especially for a first-year player who hasn’t played in a game yet.
But Roderick isn’t alone.
After the Cougars’ first scrimmage of fall camp, a scrimmage that saw Martin score a pair of touchdowns, Slovis called his work one of the highlights of the day.
“It is hard to pick out just one. I thought we had a lot of great plays, a lot of great runs. I really want to shout out LJ, the young’un, for running really hard, and winning a couple four-minute drills for us,” Slovis said.
Last spring, while Martin was still a senior at Canutillo High School, Sitake mentioned him as an incoming freshman who could see a role in 2023, along with tight end Jackson Bowers, linebacker Siale Esera and receiver Josiah “JoJo” Phillips.
One of those veteran newcomers, Colorado transfer Deion Smith, saw it right away as well.
“That’s our little brother. We love him to death. We try to give him all of the little pointers that we possibly can, Smith said. “He’s learning very fast, especially (for) a freshman. He’s developing pretty good. I am excited to see his future because I feel like he has a very high ceiling.”
Another freshman, Burton, told the Deseret News on Aug. 15 that he knew Martin was a good player after following his recruitment — Burton committed to BYU two years ago and graduated early from Springville High so he could take part in spring ball — and watching some of his high school highlights.
“That man, that dude right there, LJ, he is a really good player, man,” Burton said, pointing in Martin’s direction after a practice. “I mean, really good. Man, he has come in here and turned heads right away. LJ is quite the player.”
It is not that Martin arrived without a pedigree. He was rated as a three-star prospect by 247sports.com and a four-star running back by ESPN and ran wild in Texas’ 5A Division II, one of the top divisions in a state known for producing elite high school talent.
Martin ran for 2,137 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior and caught 15 passes for 376 yards and six touchdowns. He was also a two-time all-district basketball player and a standout on Canutillo’s track team in 2019.
After he was the star of a team session the middle of the second week of camp, causing reporters to scramble to their rosters to figure out who No. 27 was, Martin humbly accepted the praise that flowed his way.
“Those were (high-profile) plays, but I am most happy about some solid football plays, like pass protections and things like that,” he said. “Pass pro is something I am working hard on, just making sure there is a clean pocket for the quarterback.”
Those kinds of statements and aspirations will only endear him more to his coaches and teammates.
“That’s just how he is,” Burton said. “Just a really down-to-earth, humble guy.”
Martin said his experience to date in Provo has “been awesome.” He’s roommates with transfers Keelan Marion, Darius Lassiter and Ray Paulo, so the foursome has been getting adjusted to Provo together.
Martin said fellow running backs such as Smith, Aidan Robbins, Hinckley Ropati, Miles Davis and Morgan Pyper have been especially welcoming, which is notable because he threatens to take carries away from the latter three who are all returners to the team from the past several years.
“They have all been great mentors and have talked to me about all the plays, talked me through the plays, just to make sure I know what I am doing,” Martin said. “A lot of people are working hard to get me right.”
And saying all the right things about what this kid can do in the future.