PULLMAN — Two years ago, Washington State’s receiver rotation included a senior, two juniors and three sophomores.
It also included a true freshman named Tay Martin, whose work ethic in practice repeatedly drew glowing comments from coach Mike Leach.
“He’s a guy (who), if he keeps improving,” Leach said after a win against Colorado in October 2017, “is maybe six months from being the best receiver on the team, because they’ll have a hard time holding him off.”
Although Martin last season indeed led WSU receivers (as opposed to running backs) with 69 catches, he ranks only sixth in that category this year. A displeased Leach yanked him from offensive drills during a preseason practice, then later held him from the receiver rotation against Arizona State until a late desperation drive. During stretches of other games, he saw plenty of minutes but few balls thrown his way.
Yet Leach said Martin has concentrated his focus in practice the past two weeks, and the results on game day have brightened. The 6-foot-3 junior caught four passes for 66 yards at California and four more for 76 yards and a touchdown last week in a 49-22 win against Stanford. His blocking on the edge also has carved out space for running back Max Borghi.
The Cougars (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) try to reach the six-win minimum for bowl eligibility at 6 p.m. Saturday (Pac-12 Network) when they play Oregon State (5-5, 4-3) in their final home game.
Leach implied that Martin, who faced multiple hardships growing up in Louisiana, might have been dealing with family issues earlier in the season.
“I think sometimes — I think this happens to a lot of players, just people in general — you have early success and you feel like you’ve kind of accomplished something,” Leach said this week. “And as tough as football is — and family issues and external things that come into play — I think it becomes hard to focus. Everybody goes through lapses from time to time, where they’ve got to reset. I think he’s kind of reset with a vengeance the last couple of weeks.”
Martin plays the X, or far left, receiver position, which sometimes get overshadowed in Leach’s Air Raid, with its emphasis on quick passes. It’s easier for a right-handed quarterback like Anthony Gordon to unload the ball quickly if he throwing to his right.
But the Cougars appear to be looking for creative ways to get Martin the ball, especially when the offensive line is protecting as well as it did against Stanford.
He ran a crossing route in the first quarter and spanned the width of the field before catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from Gordon. Then in the third quarter, he cut off a similar route and looped downfield for a 30-yard reception. When he looped, two defenders followed him (too slowly), which left slotback Renard Bell wide open underneath. Gordon had no lack of options on that play.
Whatever was holding Martin back, he said persistence was key in coping with it.
“You can’t let it get to you, stuff like that,” he said after the Stanford game. “You’ve just got to keep pushing, keep playing, hope for the best for your team, and do what you can for your team.”
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