An injury to Justin Wright will give linebacker Nick Martin a chance to prove himself in the middle of OSU’s defense.
When he saw his fellow linebacker hurting in the locker room, Nickolas Martin realized his role was set to change.
“(Justin Wright) came in after halftime and he had tears in his eyes,” Martin said. “It broke my heart seeing how this could be really serious. I thought I need to play for him, you know what I’m saying? Get this win for him and ball out for him.”
The Cowboys did win, beating Central Arkansas 27-13 on Saturday. They were without Wright for most of the game after he suffered an undisclosed injury in the first half.
Further evaluation alleviated his darkest fear. Wright, a senior transfer from Tulsa, will be back in about a month.
Martin, a redshirt sophomore, will play an important role in keeping OSU’s defense on track starting Saturday against Arizona State (9:30 p.m. CDT, FS1). Martin was initially listed as an “or” with Wright as the starting middle linebacker but edged Wright out as the Week 1 starter.
Martin joins upperclassmen Collin Oliver and Xavier Benson as a starting linebacker. According to Pro Football Focus, Martin played only one less snap Saturday (54) than Oliver and Benson. Coaches were high on Martin in the offseason, and he will get a chance to prove them right.
Martin was a freshman when OSU won the Fiesta Bowl. He said he watched Malcom Rodriguez and Devin Harper — the NFL-bound linebackers anchoring that OSU team — to hone his craft and leadership abilities.
“(Martin is) trying to become a leader early in his career, which is really encouraging,” coach Mike Gundy said.
Questions still swirl surrounding OSU’s new 3-3-5 defense, especially regarding tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, Martin, Oliver and safety Trey Rucker each missed three tackles on Saturday. Only one player across the entire Big 12 missed more.
Complicating matters, Martin described Wright as a great physical tackler and dominant force.
Gundy said he avoided putting his defense through physical tackling drills to preserve his players’ health before the opener. Even in that type of practice, Martin said the defense can improve.
“There’s ways to focus on (tackling) without going to the ground,” Martin said. “Get clean thuds, wrapping up, following through. Focusing on everything that goes before and after the tackle. Closing ground, having clean feet and a clean shoulder thud. We’ve been focusing on that all week.”
Martin is not a prototypical linebacker. At 6-foot, 215 pounds, his build is similar to some of OSU’s safeties. It didn’t dissuade OSU coaches from recruiting him out of Pleasant Grove High School in Texarkana, Texas.
“Some people weren’t sure if he would be big enough or would be able to not be a tweener at his position,” Gundy said. “But he could run, he loved football and he played the game violently.”
That’s what defensive tackle Justin Kirkland said he enjoys most about Martin. He is a guy who flies around, hits people and gets up smiling.
Linebackers make the defensive calls in OSU’s defense. Kirkland said Martin is prepared to be OSU’s middle linebacker, even if he plays the position unconventionally.
“I always made it my goal to reinvent the linebacker position,” Martin said. “You don’t got to be this big brawler linebacker that’s 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-3 to really get the job done. I’ve been focusing on that and grinding with my guys to figure out a way to do that.”