Oliver Martin felt it building up in fall camp last year.
The pain was in his right knee, but he felt good enough to play in the season-opener at Illinois. Martin wasn’t about to waste the opportunity in front of him anyway.
The Coralville, Iowa, native lasted two seasons at Michigan, from 2017-18, then transferred to his home-state Hawkeyes before leaving after only a season and landing across the Missouri River in Lincoln. He had fought and clawed his way to the starting rotation for the Huskers, so he wasn’t going to sit out.
Nebraska fans don’t need to relive the pain from that 30-22 loss in Champaign, or the, “It looked like the same movie today,” comment from head coach Scott Frost following it. But in all the Big Red bad that went down in the other Memorial Stadium that hot late-August afternoon, Martin was a silver lining.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver caught six passes for 103 yards, both career-highs, and a touchdown. He looked like the only wideout who had a real connection with then quarterback Adrian Martinez.
But when Martin woke up the next morning, his knee was swelled up to the point where he couldn’t even bend it.
“After that,” Martin said, “I couldn’t run.”
Martin called what happened a “really odd, nagging injury” that didn’t allow him to practice or play. Atrophy set in, which meant he had to build the muscle back up in his leg. After the Illinois game, Martin essentially disappeared as he worked toward his return.
The setback forced Martin to miss the Fordham, Buffalo, Oklahoma and Michigan State games. He returned to the field against Northwestern, but caught just four passes for 67 yards the rest of the season.
But that was then, and this is now. Martin is routinely mentioned as one of the receivers who is impressing this spring.
“It’s been a while since then, so I feel like I’ve regained all my strength and explosiveness,” Martin said, “and I feel like I’m playing at a high level right now.”
Certain players stand to benefit from the coaching changes at Nebraska. Count Martin as one. As a receiver who’s passionate about and understands the importance of the finer details of receiver play, he’s taken well to the teaching style of his new position coach, Mickey Joseph.
Martin takes pride in his route running and releases, and works on those two aspects rigorously in the offseason. He feels one of his strengths is an ability to set defensive backs up, or make them believe he’s running one route, then once they bite, he’ll breakdown and do another to create separation.
Joseph obviously knows receiver play. While at LSU, he coached multiple of them who are now in the NFL. Martin likes what’s been going on at practice with his position group and how Joseph is teaching it.
“There’s a wide variety of drills that we do to work on the different aspects of the receiver and the technique,” Martin said.
On Wednesday, the team’s 11th practice of the spring, Joseph had his wideouts doing release drills against press coverage. Those are meant to teach the wideouts ways to get defensive backs’ hands off them as they work into their route, something Martin said, “from my experience, not a ton of coaches have worked on.”
Joseph has been vocal about coaching his receivers hard. It’s what has shaped the Husker receivers room into what it is right now. There’s been change, like the departure of talented in-state product Zavier Betts, who left the team following spring break.
“They have to love the game. You’re going to have to love the game to play for me. You’re going to have to love the game to play for Scott,” Joseph said on Feb. 28. “You’re not going to be able to like it, because when you like it, you’re not going to play.”
That coaching style resonates with Martin, who said an important December meeting with Joseph after he was hired helped spark a relationship that has only gotten stronger. Joseph called Martin into his office for a meeting—just the two them, one-on-one.
That meant a lot to Martin.
“That’s where the relationship started, I thought that was pretty cool. I feel like I’m a lot closer to him than the previous coaches I’ve had, and that’s big for me,” Martin said. “He’s a big relationship guy. That’s one thing that stuck out to me compared to the other coaches I’ve had, is he made relationships with all the guys and they’re pretty tight-knit and there’s a pretty good brotherhood in the room.
“He holds a lot of people accountable. You need to be at meetings on time, you need to be at the right place on time, you need to execute your assignments on the field, and if not, he’ll let you know.”
Playing in a Mark Whipple offense has Martin excited, too. The receiver said there’s a wide variety of passing concepts that are built specifically to attack different coverages an offense will see throughout a game. If a defense throws something at the offense that works the first time around, Whipple has a route concept for it.
“It feels like he’s got an answer to everything,” Martin said, “and he can highlight the three different receiver positions, or the tight end position, and a lot of different concepts, which I like a lot.”
In practices, Martin said he’s seen more plays being made down the field. Personally, he loves it when he gets to run certain routes, like posts, post-corners or straight go routes, were he gets to use his speed to run past a defender.
He showed glimpses of that at Illinois, including this play, where he beat corner Devon Witherspoon for an over-the-shoulder 43-yard reception:
The knee injury derailed what looked to be a promising 2021 season, something that Martin has been waiting for his entire college football career. But the knee is better now, and he’s found stability at Nebraska with a position coach he gels with and an OC he’s excited about.
With the injury behind Martin, the goal for 2022 is simple: stay healthy. Do that, and the former four-star prospect and the state of Iowa’s top receiver in the 2017 class is confident the rest will come.
“Put in so much work, felt like it was finally my time, and it kind of got stripped away from me right after the first game,” Martin said. “I think the toughest part was mentally dealing with that. But I’m back now. I feel good, so it’s a relief and I’m ready to have a big year.”