Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 3 of the 17-day series.
For a while, it seemed as if Robert Martin was destined to be the next star at Linebacker U.
But instead of running over opposing quarterbacks, the incoming freshman will be tasked with protecting Penn State’s signal-callers.
In eighth grade, Martin was rated one of the top linebackers in the country by Football University — a development camp made up of former NFL coaches and players. He was quick and powerful, and pro football alumni envisioned a future hard-hitting OLB.
Luckily for the Nittany Lion faithful, St. Joseph Regional coach Augie Hoffmann saw something else.
When he looked at the middle schooler’s frame, he saw someone who could climb to 270 pounds and anchor the line. When he glanced at his wingspan, he saw an offensive tackle that could keep ends at bay. And, most importantly of all, he saw potential. So that’s what Hoffmann — who played one season with the New Orleans Saints in 2006 — told Martin’s father during a summer practice leading into his freshman year.
I get it. You want him to play outside linebacker. You think it’s a sexier position. I’m telling you right now, in four years, this kid is going to be a scholarship tackle. It’s a hard dream to sell a kid, but just trust me on this.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Hoffmann said. “He went from thinking he’s an outside linebacker to being a scholarship kid as a sophomore.”
Martin acknowledged he was “a little itchy” about switching to offense. But he trusted Hoffmann — and his coach’s advice quickly paid off. One assistant even took notes on the transition, and Martin’s father still distinctly remembers one entry that was written before the season opener: “Things clicked together for Robbie, and he fell in love with being an offensive lineman.”
He never fell out of love with the position. Eventually, the New Jersey native would go on to earn double-digit scholarship offers from the likes of Boston College, Nebraska and Virginia Tech. But, back in high school, the transition continued. And his understanding and dedication to the position only grew.
At one point, he split the bridge of his nose during an intrasquad scrimmage — but refused to come out, taped it up and trotted back out onto the field.
“If you’re building an offensive tackle, he’s the model you want,” said Frank Coccaro, Martin’s offensive line coach. “He’s got long arms, he’s got the height (6-foot-5), he hasn’t even hit puberty yet — I don’t think the kid shaves yet.”
Martin and his coaches knew he was a unique talent eight weeks into his 2014 sophomore season, when he faced his toughest task to date: Defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the current Michigan defender and the nation’s former No. 1 overall recruit out of Paramus Catholic.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I was honestly a little nervous going up against him,” Martin said. “But I just trusted that if I just followed my technique that I wouldn’t have any problems.”
Gary was stifled all game and rarely got through to Martin’s quarterback.
“Next thing you know,” Coccaro said, “guys heard about him, started watching his film and he blew up.”
But when schools around the country — from as far away as Stanford — came calling, the former linebacker’s mind remained on Happy Valley.
Martin, who developed into a leader as an upperclassman, often taking younger players aside to offer advice en route to a state title, committed to Penn State the summer leading up to his senior year.
Blue and white were the only two colors he’d grown to love during his Pee-Wee days. His youth football coach, the late Michael Morelli, made sure of that.
“My husband always wore his Penn State visor and baseball hat and he would only tell the kids, ‘This is where you want to play; this is why you’re doing this,’” Mary Kay Morelli said of her late spouse, who coached Rob Martin from third to eighth grade. “And Robbie was always a standout, even as a little kid.”
The only difference now: Martin is making noise on the other side of the ball.
Overview of Robert Martin
Hometown/high school: Sparta, N.J./St. Joseph Regional
Height/weight: 6-foot-4/275 pounds
Position: Offensive lineman
Recruit ranking: 3 stars (247, ESPN, Rivals and Scout)
Other scholarship offers: Boston College, Duke, Kentucky, Maryland, N.C. State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
James Franklin says: “I’m really excited about Robert because he doesn’t have a hair on his face. His face, looks like he’s about 14 years old. He’s about 275 pounds right now. He has so much room for growth. When he decides to start growing some facial hair and fill out, I think we’re going to have a chance to get a guy who has got a really, really big upside.”