COLUMBUS - A week ago, Jermil Martin had played in just one game this season for Ohio State and carried the ball a single time for negative two yards. Only the most ardent followers of the Buckeyes knew who he was.
After Martin's performance against Minnesota on Saturday - seven carries for 75 yards, including a 39-yard burst for a touchdown that had him dragging a couple of defenders into the end zone - some are comparing Martin to Ohio State legend Keith Byars. Byars had almost 3,000 yards rushing while leading the Buckeyes in the 1983 and 1984 seasons.
Martin, a redshirt freshman from Cleveland's football factory Glenville High who was fourth on the depth chart, got pressed into service after injuries culled the top two tailbacks from the lineup. If Dan "Boom" Herron and Brandon Saine are not cleared to play in Saturday's game against New Mexico State, Martin and true freshman Jordan Hall will carry the load.
Herron started the first four games this season, but has been out with an injured ankle for most of the past month. Saine stepped into the starting role in the Indiana game four weeks ago, but suffered what is believed to be a concussion in the first half of last Saturday's 38-7 win over Minnesota.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said yesterday that the availability of both Saine and Herron remains uncertain. Saine was held out of contact at yesterday's practice while his injury continues to be evaluated. Tressel said he hopes to have both of them back, but if Herron and Saine are not cleared to play, Tressel is a lot more comfortable about handing the ball to Martin after seeing his performance against the Gophers.
"That was the end of the game and emotionally our opponent wasn't like they were at the beginning of the game, but that doesn't lessen the fact that he did a good job," Tressel said. "We of course feel better about Jermil being in the game now, after having seen him carry it seven or eight times."
Martin (6-0, 227), who was listed as a fullback last year, won All-Ohio honors at Glenville as a defensive end. He has been working at tailback this fall, and Martin said the OSU coaches have repeatedly told him to be prepared to play.
"It is very interesting how things change," Martin said after the Minnesota game. "And I was ready for that opportunity. It kind of makes me realize that I'm kind of important to the team, so I really have to contribute the best way I can."
Tressel said that although Martin and Hall have both performed well, he is still uneasy about the relative lack of depth at the position, if Saine and Herron remain sidelined.
"The thoughts of going into the game and it's just Jordan and Jermil - I'm a little nervous about that," Tressel said. "That's awfully thin. And so you might be thrust into a difficult situation."
That "situation" refers to the temptation to play highly touted freshman Jaamal Berry from Florida, who was not available for the first two-thirds of the season because of a hamstring injury but is healthy now.
Tressel said recently that Berry would likely redshirt this season, and thus have four full years of eligibility remaining, but if he plays one play, Berry loses a whole season.
Tressel also said that despite what many perceive as the relative weakness of this Saturday's opponent - the Aggies rank last in the country in offense - he would not hold Saine or Herron out just to protect them and save them for the Ohio State's three remaining Big Ten games.
"No, not at all. If Brandon Saine is cleared, Brandon's playing. If Boom Herron is cleared, he's going to play," Tressel said. "We need - this is an important game, that's one thing. We need to get better. That's just as important. So the best chance you have to get better is on Saturdays."
The Buckeyes also are dealing with the personnel shuffle on the offensive line, where Mike Adams is expected to be out for a couple of weeks with a minor knee injury, and J.B. Shugarts is recovering from a bruised ankle. Andrew Miller has improved significantly after missing most of the last month with the flu, and Jim Cordle is working back into the regular playing rotation after missing four games with an ankle injury.
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A week ago, Jermil Martin had played in just one game this season for Ohio State and carried the ball a single time for negative two yards. Only the most ardent followers of the Buckeyes knew who he was. After Martin's performance against Minnesota on Saturday, some are comparing Martin to Ohio State legend Keith Byars.