Midway through preseason training camp, BYU backup quarterback Ryder Burton was talking about a couple of other new arrivals on the Cougars’ 2023 football team — tight end Jackson Bowers and receiver JoJo Phillips — when he suddenly pointed out another freshman who was getting in some extra work after practice.

“That dude right there, No. 27, is quite the player,” Burton said. “He’s special.”

“I thought he played much more maturely than a true freshman. We have been bragging about how good he has been, and he looked a little bit like Tyler Allgeier out there with some of the runs and the vision that he had.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on LJ Martin

The dude was running back LJ Martin, who BYU fans learned in Saturday’s 14-0 win over Sam Houston is just what Burton described. The true freshman from El Paso, Texas, rescued BYU’s offense late in the third quarter when it was going nowhere and finished with 91 rushing yards on 16 carries.

It was the most rushing yards by a BYU freshman since Jamaal Williams — now a member of the New Orleans Saints — gained 104 against Idaho in 2012. It was the fifth-most yards by any BYU player in his first game in a Cougar uniform.

“The O line blocked their tails off and I felt like holes were wide open when I was in,” Martin said, humbly. “Kedon (Slovis) was directing me, making sure I knew what I was doing, because I struggled a little bit. Everyone did their part. Receivers were blocking. I mean, it was a team effort all around.”

After the game, head coach Kalani Sitake said his ill-advised fake punt call didn’t produce the spark his team needed, so he went with an unproven freshman who was so good in fall camp that his performance demanded he see playing time in the opener.

“I thought he played much more maturely than a true freshman,” Sitake said. “We have been bragging about how good he has been, and he looked a little bit like Tyler Allgeier out there with some of the runs and the vision that he had.”

Tyler Allgeier? That’s high praise, considering the former walk-on who is now with the Atlanta Falcons set BYU’s single-season rushing record in 2021 with 1,601 yards.

Then again, praise has rained down on the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder from El Paso’s Canutillo High since he arrived in Provo last June and became roommates with receivers Darius Lassiter and Keelan Marion and tight end Ray Paulo.

“We love him to death,” Colorado transfer running back Deion Smith said in camp. “We try to give him all the little pointers and stuff that we possibly can. … Especially as a freshman, he is learning fast. I am excited to see his future because I feel like he has a very high ceiling.”

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Last Saturday’s performance was the stuff dreams are made of, and Martin freely admits he “always dreamed of it, probably didn’t expect it to happen.”

The key to keeping it up, he said, is to “try to keep a good head on my shoulders” and “try to soak in as much as I can” from guys like Slovis, Smith and RB1 Aidan Robbins.

“They have taught me a lot in the few months I have been here,” Martin said. “It means a lot to me.”

Who is this kid?

His given name is John Martin II, but because his father’s name is John Martin, he goes by “LJ” — which stands for Little John. His extended family also has a Little Jeff and a Little Will, he said.

Martin’s parents were both college athletes. His father, who is African American, played basketball and his mother, Genevieve, who is Hispanic, played softball.

“Since my dad played college basketball — with guys like Tony Gonzalez and Chauncey Billups — that is what we did growing up,” Martin said. “I didn’t start playing football until my junior year. That’s when I put basketball aside and said I am focusing on football. ‘That’s my future.’”

Indeed it was.

Martin was a beast at Canutillo, racking up 5,949 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns in his career there. He was a four-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings and tabbed the No. 37 running back in the country by that recruiting outlet.

BYU running back LJ Martin is tackled by Sam Houston defensive back Elias Escobar during the game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. The true freshman made a solid first impression. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Martin originally committed to Texas Tech after his junior season, then to Stanford and was a long-running Cardinal commit for months until Stanford coach David Shaw resigned, ironically, moments after BYU romped past the Cardinal 35-26 in late November 2022. The Cougars rushed for 358 yards — averaging 7.2 yards per carry — and Martin noticed.

“Coach Shaw resigned, and then sure enough a couple days later, coach (Tyson) McDaniel reached out, because he is an El Paso native,” Martin said, referring to one of the Cougars’ offensive analysts. “He was like, ‘Would you be interested in BYU?’ My dad was like, ‘Whatever you do, say yes, they run the ball. They get those big O linemen. They are going to block for you.’”

BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga called a bit later, and a week after that Martin took his official visit to BYU. He met Burton, Phillips and linebacker Siale Esera on the visit and “really liked them, really liked the place.”

After a tour of campus and some sit-down discussions with several coaches, his interest grew.

“I talked to the coaching staff and I could tell they were good people. They cared about me as a person. I just felt like I was going to be taken care of. That’s why I was interested,” he said.

One small tie to BYU

Although his was a “mostly basketball family” when he was growing up, Martin knew a lot about football because his uncle played the sport and coached at nearby New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He also vouched for the Cougars as a “big-time program,” Martin said.

That BYU is owned and supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wasn’t a surprise, because one of Martin’s best friends on a traveling basketball team, Ricky Patterson, is a member of the church.

“We would play everywhere, but he would never play on Sundays, because it was part of his religion and the church,” Martin said. “So I already knew a few things about BYU, from Ricky.”

Patterson is currently on a church mission, but his family moved to Pleasant Grove a few years ago and they have already had Martin over for Sunday dinner a couple of times.

Martin said the biggest “culture shock” for him has been the demographics of Utah. He’s used to being around people of mostly Hispanic and Latino descent, he said.

“Just walking around seeing almost totally Caucasian people has been a little bit different,” he said. “But everybody is really nice. I would say it is the same as El Paso in that regard — just really nice people.”

When he was asked during fall camp what he expected his role to be in 2023, Martin spoke as if he would get only a few carries, maybe in blowouts. But projected RB3 Hinckley Ropati sustained a knee injury during the second scrimmage, and Martin rose up the depth chart.

“I am just trying to help these guys out,” he said in mid-August. “If they need a breather, and I am the one to do it, that is great for me.”

Making an early splash in camp, then opener

Those who were paying attention in fall camp knew Martin was going to get his chance early. Roderick said as much after the second week, and Slovis went out of his way to give a shoutout to the “young ’un” for his play in the first scrimmage.

“He’s more than pretty good,” Roderick said. “LJ is one of our best players and you are going to see a lot of him this year. He will play, and he proved that early in camp and then just keeps getting better each day.”

For his part, Unga isn’t surprised at Martin’s early success.

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“Honestly, the kid does everything correctly, remarkable for a young guy who came in in the summer time and tried to pick up this offense and learn it all within a short amount of time,” Unga said. “That is the thing that has impressed me the most. Not a lot of guys who are true freshmen come in late and are able to grasp the entire playbook the way he has.”

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Unga said Martin’s early grasp of the playbook is the reason coaches trusted him Saturday.

“For as big as he is, he actually has some really good feet,” Unga said. “He has great hands, too. And I love the way he runs. He is a smooth runner for as big as he is.”

Roderick reminded viewers on his “Coordinators’ Corner” show Monday that coaches were planning on Martin making an early impact all along.

“We had a plan to play him in the second quarter, and see how he does, and if he does well we are going to get him more touches in the second half,” Roderick said. “So yeah, he just made good on the opportunity. Once he got the hot hand, we kept giving him the ball and he did a great job. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry in a game where we were struggling to get yards. He gave us a spark.”

BYU running back LJ Martin warms up before game against Sam Houston at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. The true freshman made quite an impression against the Bearkats. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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