CHAMPAGNE, Ill. — Ryan Walters agree that Quan Martin probably got a little overlooked at times last season. Kerby Joseph was the gratuitous bullet-peddling security that ripped turnovers out of thin air and Sidney Brown was the hard-hitting, Troy Polamalu-esque safety that confused the quarterbacks. Martin’s impact was felt throughout the defense, but perhaps not always in box scoring.
After bouncing from boundary corner to slot safety in his first three years at Illinois, Martin excelled playing nickel – essentially slot corner – for the Illini last season freshman under Walters, the team’s defensive coordinator. Although he didn’t have Joseph’s (5) interceptions (1) or Brown’s (81) tackles (55), Martin’s work in the slot didn’t go unnoticed by Walters or Pro FootballFocus.
Among Illinois defensive players to play at least 100 snaps, Martin had the team’s seventh-best defensive rating. He also had the third-best coverage rating of any defensive player in Illinois with at least 100 cover shots. He had the best tackle rating of any Illini, per PFF, and was charged with just three missed tackles all year — and zero in the past seven weeks. Martin had the best defensive rating (69.0), best coverage rating (67.6) and best tackle rating (88.8) of his four-year career, according to PFF.
“I can’t talk enough about what he adds to what we’re capable of doing defensively,” Walters told Illini Inquirer on Tuesday. “Sometimes it can be overshadowed because it covers the slot a lot. When your slot machine receiver isn’t catching the ball much, you don’t show up on the stat sheet as much. It relieves us enormously as a defender and for me as a playmaker, of course.
For as much value as Martin brought last year, he could bring more this season. Joseph has declared for the NFL Draft and is currently being slated as a potential Day Two selection. That leaves a free safety void – which Walters calls the “post” but can be thought of as the center back in defense – and Martin has the versatility to play there. He spent time there during spring training, but in packages with three safeties (nickel is part of the safety group), he played nickel and Kendall Smith played free safety with Brown at the other point of safety.
The versatility of playing two positions at what the staff deem to be a high level allows Walters to get creative in sets and plug in whoever he feels most comfortable with at the safety slot or nickel free. Leading candidates for significant playing time between the three safety positions are Brown, Martin, Smith, redshirt freshmen Curry Kionte and Green Prince as well as former extras Tailon Leitzsey.
Walters, defensive backs coach Aaron Henry and head coach Bret Bielema instilled a lot of confidence in Martin, who is now among the high school leaders.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Martin said of his positional versatility. “You have to be confident when moving to different places. Just being able to confuse the teams a bit and help the team.
Martin has shown versatility even under former head coach – and former defensive coordinator – Lovie Smith. According to PFF, Martin played mostly boundary turns in his first two seasons as an Illini, but split time in the box, free safety and slot during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Although it’s in a different defensive system, the lessons learned bouncing from here to there on Illini’s defense still carry over into a new – and more successful – system.
“The most important thing I can say is learn the ball, man,” Martin said. “From first year to now, the amount of ball I’ve learned and the situational stuff has really helped my game a lot. …I was all over that defense for about four years. Being able to move around and have that confidence when you go from place to place and never lose that confidence there.
Walters works directly with safeties and helped Joseph go from a temperamental drifter on Illini’s team to a breakout safety and a top-100 pick in the NFL Draft. Brown had his best college season with Walters as coach, as did Martin. Walters, Martin said, never allows comfort. He clearly has confidence in Martin, and that confidence extends to the entire defensive coaching staff.
“Quan Martin can literally play anywhere in high school,” Henry said. “He has corner coverage ability. It has reach as security. He has tremendous ball qualities. This is an anomaly in our secondary.
There are still four months to go before Walters unveils his defensive secondary against Wyoming to open the season, but Martin allows the staff the versatility to tinker with different formations and formations. In fact, the entire defensive secondary has positional versatility. The coaching staff have mentioned Brown’s ability to play the nickel – although he’s a safe bet to stay in his current role – and Curry can play as a safety in the box or at the nickel and so on. the whole line.
This versatility has allowed Walters and Co. to be creative on this side of the ball, which includes pre-slam moves to get rid of the quarterback. Although Martin didn’t lead the team in any category last season, his value is extremely important as Illinois enters the second year under Bielema and Walters.
“We have guys who can play it safe who can go corner and guys who can play corner who can come and play it safe,” Martin said. “It helps us a lot and helps our defense to allow us to be more versatile.”