Eric Martin’s high school teammates used to call him ”Caveman.”
The nickname didn’t stick for long at Nebraska, even though his teammates say it suits the senior defensive end.
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Linebacker Alonzo Whaley thought a moment when asked if Martin has a moniker nowadays.
”Crazy Man Eric Martin?” Whaley said. He paused. ”I usually call him by his name.”
After the performance Martin gave last week against Iowa, Wisconsin offensive coaches, linemen and quarterback Curt Phillips should know his name as they prepare for Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. If not his name, they surely know his number: 46.
Martin has gone from backup the first two games of the season to All-Big Ten first-team pick by the media.
He’s been a terror coming off the edge, racking up 8 1/2 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. With defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler out because of injury, Martin will be counted on even more to help contain a strong running game headed by Montee Ball.
”He brings a lot of energy,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. ”He’s a very powerful guy that’s got a lot of quickness and suddenness. He’s going to be a guy that we need to take care of.”
Iowa had no answer for Martin, who alternated as a down lineman in the Huskers’ base 4-3 defense and as an outside linebacker when they went to a 3-4. He was in the Hawkeyes’ backfield all afternoon and finished with seven tackles, three for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
”If guys are going to try to block him one-on-one, it’s going to be pretty difficult,” linebacker Will Compton said.
Martin said he played with extra energy because the Hawkeyes’ offensive linemen kept shoving him after the whistle. Martin figures they were frustrated. He let out a hearty laugh at the thought.
”Somebody has to be the big brother in the game, and we have to be the big brother, so we had to take over,” Martin said. ”We can’t let the little brother win. You let them get in a few pushes and shoves here, but you’ve got to take over after a while.”
Martin, no doubt, does his part to get under his opponent’s skin. He is known for having one-sided conversations with players lined up across from him. Teammates say he mostly talks nonsense.
”He’s in left field half the time,” Whaley said.
Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said, ”He can make a long day for a left tackle, that’s for sure.”
Martin build his reputation on special teams. In 2010 he made a team-leading 13 special-teams tackles and was suspended for a game after a blind-side hit on Oklahoma State’s Andrew Hudson during teammate Niles Paul’s 100-yard kickoff return. Hudson suffered a concussion.
For a while, Martin was worried that the hit on Hudson would be all he would be remembered for.
Martin’s breakthrough came when he moved from linebacker to defensive end last year. He started twice, knocked Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa out of a game and played his best at the end of the season.
He was projected to be a pass-rushing specialist this season. By the third game, he showed he could be effective against the run, and coaches couldn’t justify keeping him off the field.
”Nobody wants to be a one-dimensional player,” he said.
Martin, at 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, is on the small side compared with most major-college defensive ends. That’s why coaches feared he wouldn’t be durable enough to play 60-70 snaps a game.
But Martin is quick, strong and motivated – a combination that negates what he lacks in size.
”I think a lot of it comes from him being undersized and him feeling like he has a lot to prove,” Whaley said. ”I’ve heard him make the comment that he feels like a lot of (offensive) tackles kind of look at him like, `Oh, look at this small guy, what is he going to do?’ Then next thing you know he’s in the lap of the quarterback.”
Martin said he’s developed another tool now that he’s into his second year as a defensive end.
”Smarts,” he said.
Martin simply tried to beat the man in front of him last year, Kaczenski said. The coaching staff kept things simple for him, essentially telling him to just go after the quarterback.
”He understands leverage, technique, the tools – how to use the tools to be successful,” Kaczenski said.
Martin’s rapid development might make him a late-round NFL draft pick in the spring. Coach Bo Pelini, who coached nine years in the NFL, said Martin could thrive on special teams and as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
That talk can wait, though. Martin said he and the other 28 seniors are driven to bring home Nebraska’s first conference championship since 1999, go to the Rose Bowl and ”leave a mark.”
”Something to look back on when we go, helping the young guys, setting the standard for them that they have to continue next year and the year after that and the year after that,” Martin said. ”That’s basically what we’re trying to do here. You always have to set a culture. Our culture is, you’ve got to win.”