Sunday, August 14, 2011

Players to Watch in 2011: Mike Martin

This choice might seem obvious to anyone who regularly follows Michigan football or has at least been following it for the last couple of seasons, but for those of you who are new to Michigan football or who are just discovering it, this is the guy you want to watch. Mike Martin is a senior defensive tackle who weighs 300 pounds and is a true force at the line of scrimmage. He's also being featured here because, as a senior, 2011 will be his last year, and he's a standout player among the other seniors.

In 2010, Martin was one of the few bright spots on Michigan's struggling defense. (Actually, "struggling" would be an understatement, as it was the worst in the program's history.) ESPN analyst Chris Spielman, an alumnus from Ohio State, infamously remarked that the Michigan defense was "Mike Martin and a bunch of nice little subs at Indiana." The jab is not talked about too much by the Wolverines, but it didn't go unnoticed.

To say that Martin is the only talented player on Michigan's defense is true only depending on who you ask. Others will argue that there are plenty of talented defense-men at safety and linebacker, and with Troy Woolfolk back in the saddle, there's talent at cornerback. However, of all the players on Michigan's defense, Mike Martin is one of the very few to gain All Big Ten honors. He'll likely be an All-American.

Martin was definitely the main force in Michigan's defense in 2010, when Rich Rodriguez and Greg Robinson ran a 3-3-5 scheme. He should have an easier time now that Michigan, Brady Hoke, and former Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are generally switching to a 4-3 defense. (Mattison has actually said that the defense will be Multiple.) This means that Martin will have extra help on the defensive line and shouldn't have to carry the majority of the pass rush by himself. 

In 2010, he was the guy that the opposing offensive line always double-teamed, because he was probably the only guy who might pose a threat. Despite that obstacle, in Martin's career he has accumulated as many as 108 tackles and 19 that were behind the line of scrimmage. Imagine what that number becomes when he has legitimate help from a more balanced four-man rush.

Until 2010, Martin had largely been under the radar. Defensive end Brandon Graham led the defense in 2009 and was Michigan's only All-American for that year, so he generally kept everyone's attention. 

There was, however, Martin's performance against Ohio State that raised some eyebrows. I hadn't really noticed him before then. Though the Wolverines lost that one 21-10 (not quite as bad as either 2008 or 2010), on one play Martin just busted through Ohio State's offensive line and with amazing ferocity sacked then-quarterback Terrelle Pryor. In all the commotion and intensity Martin's helmet came off. After the sack, there's a remembered image by several of the Michigan faithful where Martin gets up and just roars like a freaking bear, with his hair all mangled and crazy. As I sat there, the thought that came into my head was: "That guy is a beast."

He was only a sophomore at the time. After that play he was suddenly the guy who would have to lead Michigan's defensive linemen through 2010, and that was probably the play that got everybody talking about him. As a junior Martin was every bit as explosive and fierce as people expected him to be. The Wolverine publication called him "one of the most feared linemen in the Big Ten" and he is listed as one of Michigan's top five players.

Martin was so good in 2010 that he could have legitimately gone to the NFL, but he decided to stay and finish his senior year. He told The Wolverine that he had "no intentions" of skipping graduation. "I always had two feet at Michigan, and never was there one foot out the door," he said. "I wish I could stay here five more years. I love Ann Arbor. I love everything about Michigan."

If Martin plays as well in 2011 as he has so far, he'll certainly be good enough to go pro after the season. It also helps that Brady Hoke is a defensive-minded coach, so Martin has gotten a fair amount of attention, and any weaknesses he has (there are few) will be corrected before the year is over. His position, the defensive line, is probably the main focus of the coaching staff. 

Fittingly, Brady Hoke and the coaches tend to scrutinize the defense more than anything else, because that's their specialty, and because that's the unit that needs the most improvement from last year. And it's also where all eyes will be come this fall. "Coach always makes a joke, he says that everyone's live except the quarterbacks, and he always goes hard against the defense," Martin told Jim Brandstatter during spring practice, chuckling. "Even if we tag the quarterbacks, [Hoke] still says they got a first down, so I think we just have to grab them and pull them down to the turf sometime."

Martin knew Hoke even before the former San Diego State coach accepted the job at Michigan. When he was still at Ball State, back in 2007-2008, Hoke had actually recruited Martin pretty hard. He made a comment about that in his opening press conference. "I dang near thought I had him," Hoke said.

Now, Hoke must feel that there is a strange sense of poetic justice that he gets to coach Martin, a player who he attempted to recruit, who ended up going to Michigan, which was Hoke's dream job. As one of the fiercest members on the line, Martin will most certainly be utilized in Hoke's toughness-heavy defense. Martin is also one of the few players on defense with experience. He'll have to lead the rest of the unit.

"Mike Martin has a chance to be a special football player," Greg Mattison told writer John Borton at The Wolverine in Michigan Football's 2011 Preview issue. "He has tremendous God-given ability, and he works very, very hard -- up to a point. The thing we talked about is he's got to decide how good he wants to be. He's already good, but [I tell him] how good do you want to be? Do you want to be one of the best that has played here?"

It's Martin's last year at Michigan, so you can bet he'll want to make as much of an impact as he can. As you look forward to the 2011 season, and as you watch it, keep an eye on this guy. He'll be really fun to watch. 

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