TAMPA, Fla. – Greg Schiano held his hands a couple of feet apart to illustrate a point about the NFL's hottest young running back.
Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch have rushed for more yards this season, however rookie Doug Martin is gaining on them after a pair of dominating performances thrust him into the league limelight and helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right themselves following a slow start.
A little over a week after bursting onto the scene with 214 yards from scrimmage in a nationally televised Thursday night rout of Peterson's Vikings, Martin ran for a franchise-record 251 yards and four touchdowns last Sunday to propel the suddenly high-scoring Bucs to a 42-32 win over the Oakland Raiders.
The diminutive first-round draft pick who reminds Schiano of Ray Rice, another compact but powerful back who the first-year NFL coach mentored in college at Rutgers, reached the end zone on runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards to become the first player in league history to score on three runs of at least 45 yards in the same game.
"A lot of those plays you see he comes popping out of there. It's not like there's a big hole. The hole's about that wide, and Doug just trusts the play and is patient," Schiano said, using his hands to demonstrate how little space it can take for the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Martin to find a daylight in a defense.
"Good backs when they run like that they kind of pop their feet for a second if it isn't there right before and then they burst. Guys that are just never going to be good backs, they will run right into the blocker and it's a 2-yard gain. It's just a momentary hesitation. When I talk about that patience that he has ... he can feel when to slow it down and when not to slow down. That's hard to teach."
The Bucs traded up from the second round to select Martin 31st overall, hoping his versatility could help him develop into the complete back Tampa Bay has lacked for more than a decade.
After rushing for 95 yards in a season-opening win over Carolina, the native of Stockton, Calif., who picked up the nickname "Muscle Hamster" from some of his offensive linemen in the weight room at Boise State didn't come close to duplicating that type of success on the ground again until his breakout game against Minnesota.
Martin, who is not fond of the moniker that's followed him from college, had 135 yards rushing and 79 receiving while scoring on a 1-yard run and a 64-yard reception against the Vikings.
The Bucs have posted a franchise-record eight plays of 60-plus yards halfway through this season, with Martin being in involved of three of them — all in the past two weeks.
"Over the first few games and the preseason it took me a while to get comfortable with the offense and for the game to slow down," said Martin, the first Tampa Bay back to rush from at least 130 yards in consecutive games.
"It's an exciting accomplishment," he added of joining Mike Anderson as the only players in league history with 250-plus yards and four rushing TDs in a game. "I didn't really realize how special it was over was I got some text messages and phone calls about it."
In addition to scoring on three long runs en route to gaining 220 yards in the second half at Oakland, Martin sealed the victory with a 1-yard TD burst after the Raiders trimmed an 18-point deficit to three in the closing minutes.
Only Peterson (957) and Lynch (881) have rushed for more yards than Martin's 794 yards this season, and the rookie has gained 1,039 yards from scrimmage through eight games — second-most in the league to Peterson's 1,107.
Coaches and teammates laud Martin's work ethic, vision, strength and deceptive speed, while avoiding comparing to other runners with similar styles and physical features.
"You can do comparisons of one player to another and sometimes that can be unfair to either party. I think what you have with Doug is a very very hard-working, very committed young guy. The amount of work he does behind the scenes, he's just a pro. Even on his visit before we drafted him he stood out as someone that was very mature and very focused," Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said.
"This is a guy who from day one came in with a very sharp focus and absorbed every bit of coaching," Sullivan added. "I think he's mature beyond his years as far as his preparation habits, his focus and his ability to be a consistent performer and not get rattled by the big stage or any setbacks."
Martin spent much of the preseason and opening month of the season fielding questions about whether he the size and ability to be an every-down back.
After handling the ball a season-high 32 times (29 rushes, three receptions) against Minnesota and getting 29 more touches vs. Oakland (25, four) people are wondering if he's big enough to endure the physical toll that a long season takes on a running back, especially one accustomed to a much shorter college season.
"He's a guy, I think, who gains strength during the game, the more touches he gets. I think a lot of tailbacks will tell you that," Schiano said. "I think Doug is trained physically to be a back who can do that, but we've got to make sure we don't go too far with it."
The Bucs (4-4) have won three of four following a 1-3 start and have scored more than 28 points in four consecutive games for the first time.
Against Minnesota, he joined Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and Billy Sims as the only rookie with 200-plus yards from scrimmage in a game since 1970. His rushing total against Oakland tied Anderson for the 10th highest total in league history.
"It was an incredible performance," San Diego coach Norv Turner, whose Chargers face the Bucs on Sunday, said of last week's display.
"And when you couple it with the performance he had the week before against Minnesota, then you start looking at it as this is who the guy is," Turner added. "There's been some guys, obviously who have one game, but he's done it back to back, and he's shown signs of doing it like that in a lot of the games."
Like Sullivan, Turner is reluctant to compare to the rookie. After preparing to face the rookie this week, though, the one-time Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator was asked if Martin reminds him of Emmitt Smith.
"I don't like doing that to a guy because every guy has their own style," Turner said. "But there's no question, there are things he does that are Emmitt-like."
If Martin can continue to build on his success, he may even get to the point where he's recognized by a different nickname.
"I call him Dougie Fresh," said quarterback Josh Freeman, who also admits to having some fun at the expense of the rookie who wants to shake the muscle hamster tag.
"Every now and then I'll hear a good hamster joke and I think it's funny, so I'll tell my friend it's funny. Maybe he doesn't appreciate it," Freeman said, smiling again. "Doug's amazing, a tremendous player, and you want to keep him happy. So Dougie Fresh it is."
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