SAN DIEGO - There was a point only a few months ago when Eric Martin thought this season would go down as a complete waste.
Because California high school calendars run longer than most other states, Martin, a native of Moreno, Valley, Calif., was unable to join Nebraska's offseason workouts until just before the start of fall camp, while the rest of NU's incoming freshmen arrived earlier in the summer.
Still, the freshman linebacker had no issues with forgoing a redshirt season and playing right away, as he played on the kickoff and punt teams in the Huskers' season opener against Florida Atlantic.
However, after making just five tackles in the first four games, Martin started to second-guess the decision to play his first year on campus. Fortunately, that feeling didn't last too much longer.
As the Huskers got further into their Big 12 Conference schedule, Martin steadily became a bigger presence on special teams each game. By the time NU traveled to take on Baylor on Oct. 31, teams were already starting to game plan their special teams' blocking assignments around the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder.
If fact, Martin said the Bears used as many as four offensive linemen in their kickoff return wedge to help slow him down from getting to the return man. Even with the extra attention, he still managed to block a punt that was returned for a touchdown that stood as the play of the game in the Huskers' 20-10 victory.
By the end of the regular season, Martin had played in all 13 games and ranked second on the team with two blocked kicks behind senior Ndamukong Suh (3). According to his coaches, he also established himself as one of the most feared special teams players in the conference.
"I felt like I made a huge impact, actually," Martin said. "I felt like I didn't waste my freshman year. In the beginning, I felt like I wasted it, but with all the stuff I went through, I felt like I actually helped the team rather than just be another person on the team. I felt like I made an impact blocking punts and making most of the tackles on kickoffs. Having the best kickoff team in the nation, it just makes me feel like I made an impact on special teams."
Both Martin and his coaches won't hesitate to say he still needs a lot of improvement to become as big of a factor on Nebraska's defense, but both don't seem too concerned about his ability to eventually get to that point.
The confidence in his progression could already be seen during the Big 12 Championship game against Texas, when head coach Bo Pelini opted to play Martin in his first defensive series of the year when NU needed a bigger lineup to stop the run.
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said Martin has shown the potential to be a standout linebacker for the Huskers by the time he's done, but he just needs to make up for lost time this offseason to get back on track in his development.
"He's going to be a heck of a player," Carl Pelini said. "He's physical, he's athletic - he's got all those things. Being a California kid, they didn't graduate until late, so we had all those other freshman there for the summer, and he added right before camp, so he's a little bit behind. In order to truly contribute everywhere next year, he needs to spend a lot of time between the bowl game and the start of spring practice just catching himself up with the defensive scheme.
"Obviously he's come a long way during the season, but he really needs some one-on-one work just to make up for those three months over the summer that he missed. He was just kicking off. He might have been more of a factor for us defensively had he had those three months in the summer."
With his hometown just 80 miles North of San Diego, Martin said he expects at least 12-13 friends and family to make their way down for Wednesday's Holiday Bowl against Arizona.
While he said he's looking forward to playing back in his home state, Martin said he's mostly concerned with making sure he helps send off Nebraska's seniors off with a win in their final collegiate game.
In particular, Martin wants to see senior linebacker Phillip Dillard go out on top, as he credited Dillard with helping him learn how to play the position and what it means to have an unwavering work ethic no matter the circumstances.
"I learned a lot from him," Martin said. "I learned how to work hard. That's what he taught me. He taught me how to go through adversity and go through all the injuries he's been through and overcome all the stuff around him and still be able to come out and play."
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