The somewhat surprising departure of BYU running back Aidan Robbins to the NFL draft a few months ago caught a few coaches in Provo off guard and sent shockwaves through an offense that knows it needs to improve a lot for the Cougars to be more competitive in Year 2 in the Big 12.

“I am just concerned with helping the team win. It doesn’t matter if I am RB1, RB5 or RB7,” Martin said. “It is a team effort. We all just have to do our part to help get the wins.”

—  BYU running back LJ Martin

But rising sophomore running back LJ Martin wasn’t too concerned. The El Paso, Texas, native, who moved into the RB1 spot last year when Robbins missed games with a rib injury, said he’s ready to take on that role again in 2024, if that’s what is asked of him.

“I am just concerned with helping the team win. It doesn’t matter if I am RB1, RB5 or RB7,” Martin said. “It is a team effort. We all just have to do our part to help get the wins.”

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News last month that he was “a little surprised, but not super surprised,” that Robbins turned pro.

“I think he had some people in his life telling him that he should move on,” Roderick said. “I think he should have stayed, but he’s gone.”

That the coaching staff hasn’t brought in an experienced workhorse back out of the transfer portal — to date — like it did the last few years with Ty’Son Williams, Chris Brooks and Robbins — hasn’t been lost on Martin, the Cougars’ most impactful freshman on offense last year.

“I just took it as a lot of respect toward all of our guys,” Martin said, noting that Miles Davis, Hinckley Ropati, Enoch Nawahine and even freshmen such as Jovesa Damuni, Pokaiaua Haunga and Sione I. Moa are capable of stepping up.

“It really shows that they believe in us, so I appreciate them for that,” Martin said.

What went wrong with BYU’s offense last year, and how can the Cougars fix it?

Martin led BYU with with 109 carries for 518 yards and four touchdowns last year, but missed two games (Texas, West Virginia) with an undisclosed injury. But that’s not why he decided he needed to add some bulk to his 6-foot-2 frame in 2024.

“I gained about 20 pounds. Hopefully it looks like a good 20, not all in the tummy,” he said. “I just worked hard, ate a little bit more than I am used to and the strength staff did a good job getting me right, along with Dan (Wilcox), our nutritionist, telling me what I need to eat and when to eat, and just getting me right.”

Martin said he’s up to 227 pounds right now, but doesn’t believe the extra weight has affected his speed.

“I feel just as fast, if not faster,” he said. “I feel like I am still growing into my body. I am not at a set weight yet. I feel like it is just part of growing up still.”

The primary goal was to get stronger, he said.

“I just knew coming in for pass blocking and stuff, I felt like I was getting tossed around,” Martin said. “I just felt like putting on some extra weight and a little bit more muscle to get stronger and get better would help me. Breaking tackles, staying in the pass pro, and just being able to take on bigger guys was the reason for it.”

Roderick said in February and again after the third practice of spring camp that Martin has transformed his body and looks the part of a Division I RB1.

“He looks like a grown man already. He made a great transformation in one year,” Roderick said, while also praising Davis and Ropati for making big strides in the offseason. Ropati is trying to come back from an ACL injury suffered in preseason training camp.

BYU spring practices begin with all eyes on the starting QB competition, Jake Retzlaff vs. Gerry Bohanon

“So those three, I am super excited about those three. I think all three of those guys can play,” Roderick said. “And then the other guy that I think has a chance is Pokaiaua Haunga from Timpview High School. He has looked really good so far. He doesn’t look like a freshman. … I think that group is really solid.”

Roderick said establishing a rushing attack is of utmost importance this year, after that aspect of the offense was disappointing in 2023.

“It wasn’t long ago the Big 12 had the reputation of being Air Raid offenses with no defense and everybody chucks the ball around. But that is no longer the case. It is a physical, run-the-ball conference with tough defenses,” Roderick said. “… A lot of (college football) has become a more NFL-style game — protect the football, win the turnover battle.”

Martin said that renewed emphasis has been apparent in spring practices.

As for his freshman season, which wildly exceeded expectations, he said it was “surreal” and “satisfying,” but not exactly what he envisioned when he decommitted from Stanford and chose BYU in December 2022.

“Coming in, I just wanted to learn as much as possible, sitting behind those guys,” he said. “And when I got my opportunity, I just wanted to make the most of it. And luckily I was able to, thanks to Deion (Smith), Aidan, Folau (Ropati), Enoch and Miles. All those guys, they got me ready to go out there and perform. I really appreciate them for that and taking me under their wing, teaching me the ins and outs and what to do, along with coach Harv (Unga).”

BYU Cougars running back LJ Martin warms up before game against Sam Houston State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. Martin returns for his sophomore season in Provo, looking to pick up where he left off. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News