The past two summers, Joe Martarano could only communicate with his teammates via cell phone, a few hundred miles apart. This year, he was just a few feet away.
A 2014 Chicago Cubs draftee, Martarano played for minor-league teams in Arizona and Oregon while his Boise State football teammates took part in player-run practices and team workouts. Coming out of Fruitland High, he could have been a high pick in the majors, but Martarano’s dream is to play in the NFL.
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Earlier this year, Martarano decided to step away from the diamond, at least for now, and focus on the gridiron.
“It’s been fun to stay and hang out with the guys, go through summer with them, just build a stronger bond with my teammates,” Martarano said. “I felt like I needed to be there for them as a leader.”
A 6-foot-3, 238-pound redshirt junior, Martarano is now a veteran presence on the Boise State defense and anchoring one of the key spots at middle linebacker. He was tied for fifth on the team with 53 tackles and had his first career interception last season, making starts in four of the final six games.
“It’s been huge having him around because now he’s the guy in the middle,” senior linebacker Ben Weaver said. “He sets the front. He does a lot of things. Having him there, having the other guys hear his voice, know his style of play. It’s important not just for him, for the other players too, building the camaraderie.
“He’s got complete confidence now, and he’s running the defense like he should.”
A full summer of football workouts and weightlifting have left Martarano looking the part of a middle linebacker. He starts fall camp 10 pounds heavier than at the end of last season.
“It made a big difference because I’d come back from baseball being skinny, not as strong as I could be,” Martarano said. “Right now, I’ve got my weight up a bit and I’m a lot stronger.’’
Through the first six games of 2015, Martarano had 16 tackles, but in the last seven, racked up 37.
“He’s looking great. You just can’t be away three months and come back football-ready. I don’t think baseball work outs are quite like ours,” Weaver said. “I think it’ll really, really benefit him. He’s a big dude, and he can run really well, too.”
Last summer, Martarano hit .275 with a triple in 18 games between rookie league in Arizona and short-season Single-A with the Eugene Emeralds.
Martarano said the decision to put baseball on the backburner was his, and that coaches supported him playing baseball. But defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said, “He made a huge jump in terms of command,” which he’s been able to carry over into fall camp. In past years, he would look at his football playbook and watch film online when he had down time.
“It’s exciting for him to see his sacrifice and hard work is paying off,” Avalos said.
With Martarano’s ascent and his grasp of the position, it has helped enable senior Tanner Vallejo to move outside, where he feels most comfortable. Vallejo has played in the middle and at outside linebacker/nickel the last two seasons.
“That’s the quarterback of the defense. I think it helps him with his communication and also just being in better shape, getting through these workouts, because this was easily the toughest summer I’ve been through,” Vallejo said.
BOISE STATE JUST OUTSIDE COACHES TOP 25
On the day the Boise State football team began fall practices, it was on the edge of the top 25 in the Amway Coaches Poll, released Thursday morning.
The Broncos are tied with Utah among teams receiving votes, only Miami (Fla.) and Wisconsin ahead of them outside the top 25. Florida is No. 25 with 245 points. Boise State and Utah got 73. The teams matched up in last season’s national championship, Alabama and Clemson, are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Only Houston, at No. 13, is ahead of Boise State among “Group of Five” schools.
Boise State opponents making an appearance were Washington State (47 points), San Diego State (18) and BYU (six).