When Dave Nichol looked at his roster of outside receivers for the Washington State spring season, he realized one thing very clearly: They were going to get a lot of reps.
Nichol already kind of knew this because, first and foremost in a Mike Leach offense, wide receivers always get plenty of reps. But that number would be even greater this spring in Pullman because the Cougars have gone through this spring with just four outside receivers -- returning star Gabe Marks, freshman Tavares Martin Jr., early enrollee Isaiah Johnson and walk-on Kaleb Fossum.
“Good, bad, tired, fatigued -- they probably need all that,” Nichol said. “It’s going to be a hard Pac-12 season. Other than Gabe, because he has played so much and he knows how things go down in a game, I think they need more.”
And that’s exactly what Nichol told Martin when he got to Pullman four months ago -- that he thought Martin needed to do everything he could to get more reps, more receptions, more time on the field. Ultimately, Nichol explained to Martin, the Cougars’ low numbers this spring could be a silver lining for the freshman, that more reps could catapult him to a strong sophomore season. But that would be on him and his commitment to the team.
As everything stands right now, Martin is the prime candidate to be the Cougars’ starting X-receiver this fall. And over the past few seasons that spot has been held by Dom Williams and Vince Mayle, two players who got very accustomed to being targeted by Connor Halliday and Luke Falk.
But Martin doesn’t step into that prime position with quite as much experience as either of those players. In 2015 he caught 16 balls for 124 yards and one touchdown (against Oregon, his favorite team as a kid). But he admits that most of his plays were more about him getting open because of a combination of his athleticism and defenses paying more attention to Marks and Williams.
This year he understands that he won’t be given that kind of a concession, and Leach and Nichol have worked this spring to emphasize that.
“Leach wanted me to step into that role and take it. Coach Nichol wanted me to step into that role and take it as well,” Martin said. “It’s up to me to step up.”
And so far this spring, stepping up has entailed stepping to the front of the line for more reps, just as Nichol had hoped.
Nichol has seen players go through spring popping off big plays one snap only to wave another guy in for the next, but Martin hasn’t been given that luxury this spring, which is good because he won’t be given that luxury next fall.
Every time Martin has wanted to go off the field after one big play, Nichol reminds him: “We might want to throw [you] a screen the very next play. You’ve got to play the next ball. … Let’s learn how to play and push through that.”
It has been a learning process for the both of them -- Nichol as he transitions to life in Pullman, Martin as he transitions to becoming one of Falk's primary targets.
Through this spring season Nichol has spent time in conversation with Martin, giving him scenarios he could find himself in next fall. When things have gotten tough on the practice field, Nichol reminds him that it’ll be tougher against a Pac-12 opponent. When Martin is tired during the week’s second day of practice, Nichol reminds him that during the season he’ll practice five times before he plays the actual game.
It certainly hasn’t been easy: Nichol has pushed Martin to look past his freshman season and the limited success he had there. He knows that in 2016 the passing game could lean heavily on Martin and he’ll need to play with better technique and more consistently than he did last fall.
“It’s one thing to pop a screen against Oregon and everyone loves you because no one was expecting anything,” Nichol said.
And it’s another thing to have the capability to do that on every play when the expectation is high -- that’s what Martin’s spring is all about.