When Tamba Hali invited fellow Chiefs outside linebacker Josh Martin to southern California for a couple of weeks of fun in the sun before training camp began, Martin had little idea what was about to happen.
Then he saw the orange cones set up in the sand, stretching along the Pacific Ocean.
“You think, ‘Gee, that’s a far way to run,’” Martin said of Hali’s demanding training regimen early each morning on the sands of Hermosa Beach.
Nonetheless, Martin joined Hali, Chicago Bears linebacker Lamarr Houston and Jiu-Jitsu trainer Ryron Gracie in exhausting sprints, shuttles, agility drills and long-distance runs on the beach and up a sand hill next to the blue water.
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It was all part of Martin’s ascension from practice-squad player to special-teams standout to becoming a playmaker in the Chiefs’ exotic defensive packages on passing downs.
“The sun is nice, it’s not too hot, and we hopped in the ocean after the run,” Martin said. “It’s tough endurance work, but you get through it. Tamba has been going out there for the last few years, and when he gave me the invite, I couldn’t waste the opportunity.”
Hali, a workout fanatic, credits his arduous fitness program for his longevity and productivity in a nine-year career in which he has been voted to three Pro Bowls and rolled up 73.5 career sacks, third in Chiefs history.
And Hali sees enough potential in Martin, a second-year player who made the club last year as an undrafted rookie from Columbia University, to share some of the secrets to his pass-rushing success.
“It just shows he’s willing to learn,” Hali said. “He’s young in the game, and he wants to be around a person who has been around and doing it. I haven’t always had success throughout my career, but I eventually learned how to do it. That says a lot about him.
“He’s already a freak athlete. He’s very fast, and he’s very quick off the ball.”
Martin, who is 6 feet 3 and 245 pounds, already has seen benefits from his days on the beach. The Chiefs are deploying him with Hali, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and rookie Dee Ford in a five-man linebacker unit in passing downs.
“The training on the sand helps you make cuts at full speed,” Martin said. “And in order to use that speed on the edge as a pass rusher, you have to be able to change directions.”
The Jiu-Jitsu training has helped him with his hand fighting in the pass rush.
“He’s worked hard in the weight room, he’s worked hard in the off-season, and we expect him to help us this year,” said Chiefs linebackers coach Gary Gibbs. “He’s a unique young man. He’s got some skill sets to work with, he’s competitive, he’s prideful, and he’s not accepting a backup position. He wants to help us win.”
A year ago, Martin was one of the best-kept secrets in the Chiefs training camp. Though he had 17.5 career sacks and was an all-conference selection (along with seventh-round pick Mike Catapano of Princeton), it was a big jump from the Ivy League to the NFL.
Martin showed enough in preseason that the Chiefs protected him on the 53-man roster for the first three weeks of the 2013 season, but because of other roster concerns, they released Martin and slipped him onto the practice squad for the next eight weeks.
Martin was activated for the final give games, playing on special teams and making his only NFL start in the regular-season finale at San Diego, where he was credited with six tackles.
The secret is out.
“This year people have a better idea who I am as far as the coaches and their expectations of me,” Martin said. “They’re a little higher, and the experiences I had last year, playing special teams and getting to play the San Diego game benefited me and got me ready for this year.”
Martin exhibited his all-round skills on back-to-back plays in Tuesday’s practice.
On the first play, he diagnosed a screen being set up for running back Knile Davis and broke up the pass. On the next play, Davis took a handoff and was stopped in his tracks in the backfield by Martin.
“That’s his picking up the game as far as his knowledge of the game, understanding where he has to be in coverage and the defense that we run,” Hali said. “That’s where I see him grow is just knowing what to do and being consistent in doing that.”
Martin participated in 38 defensive plays in the Chiefs’ exhibition opener against Cincinnati last Thursday as well as 10 plays on special teams, where his biggest value is to the team. Martin helped spring De’Anthony Thomas on his 80-yard return for a touchdown against Cincinnati.
“I’m primarily a special teams player,” said Martin, who was part of the kickoff return team for Davis’ 108-yard kickoff return against Denver and forced a fumble on a kickoff last year at Oakland. “If they want me to help on the pass rush, I will.”
As a pass rusher, Martin follows the lead of Hali, Johnson and Houston.
“They’re great veterans, they’ve lasted long in the league,” Martin said. “Their great work ethic and their work in practices has been a great benefit.
“The one thing I’ve learned from the older guys is most of them bunker down and get their work done even before training camp.”
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @randycovitz.