Sophomore middle linebacker Joe Martarano’s emergence as one of the Boise State football team’s most productive defensive players boils down to speed.
The speed with which he processes information.
And the speed he added through losing 10 pounds and running in the summer heat before his baseball practices in Arizona.
“When you prepare all week, you can go out and just play fast,” Martarano said. “When you’re not thinking, that’s when you play fast and make plays.”
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Martarano made his first start of the season last week against Wyoming in place of injured junior Tanner Vallejo. He made six tackles and moved up to fourth on the team with 29 tackles going into Saturday’s game at UNLV (1:30 p.m., ESPNU).
“He did a really good job stepping in last week,” linebackers coach Andy Avalos said. “He played really well, made a lot of really nice plays. That’s momentum we can use to keep building on.”
Martarano has been on the rise for about a year. He recorded 20 tackles in the last four games last season — nearly doubling his output from the first 10 games — and was on the field for the final drive of the Fiesta Bowl.
His reshaped body — he’s 6-foot-3, 230 pounds — has led to improved athleticism.
“Two years ago, he was in the 240s,” Avalos said. “He’s not anywhere near that anymore. It shows in how he moves. He’s more versatile playing in space.”
Martarano also can do more mentally.
The middle linebacker sets the front seven before each play. He needs to recognize the offensive formation and make the calls that allow the Broncos to line up correctly.
Martarano usually plays in a rotation behind Vallejo, who was the defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl.
Martarano’s growth has cut the gap between them.
“We’re able to do a lot more stuff when he’s out there (than before),” Avalos said. “He definitely gets it and is able to communicate better.”
Martarano, the former three-sport star at Fruitland High, learned how to study the game during the season last year. The key, he said, was finding the right routine to get video study and schoolwork done within the week.
“His feel has gotten a lot better,” coach Bryan Harsin said.
Martarano noticed the difference late last season, when he began gaining more playing time behind then-senior Blake Renaud.
“At the end of last year, I figured out the preparing part of it,” Martarano said. “... I play a little faster this year just because I’m more comfortable out there. As a freshman, I was out there just not as comfortable, just trying not to mess up.”
Free to play rather than think, he’s able to do the thing that made him choose football over baseball in the first place: hit.
He doesn’t have any second thoughts about his decision, he said, even though he’s juggling football, school (he’s a criminal justice major) and minor-league baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization when he could have focused on baseball full time as a pro.
He hasn’t considered whether he’ll play baseball for a third straight summer in 2016, he said.
“I’ve just always loved football,” Martarano said. “I kind of pride myself on being a physical kid. Obviously in football you’ve got to be physical. That’s why I’ve always loved it.”
Boise State at UNLV
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500, Sprinturf), Las Vegas
TV: ESPNU (Clay Matvick, John Congemi)
Radio: KBOI (670 AM), KTIK (93.1 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Series: Boise State leads 5-3
Vegas line: Boise State by 19 1/2