- Feature Story
- George Becnel
- November 15, 2018 - 8:23am
THIBODAUX - As Ahmani Martin prepares to take part in his final regular-season game in a Nicholls uniform against visiting Southeastern Louisiana on Thursday night, the nationally-ranked Colonels are on the verge of a Southland Conference championship and an automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
None of those things were part of the same sentence when Martin was a senior at East St. John High School four years ago and was being recruited by then-incoming Colonel coach Tim Rebowe.
Prior to the arrival of Martin and Rebowe, the Colonels has suffered through seven-straight losing seasons and in the midst of an 18-game losing streak.
“Before I got to Nicholls, I really didn’t know anything about Nicholls. Even the season before I got here, I knew nothing about it but the communication with Coach Rebowe and the plan that he had and said what we were going to do and that I had to chance to play on the field early, I just went with it and trusted the process,” Martin recalled.
“Guys like Ahmani, they set the precedent,” said Rebowe. “They came here and they talked about the things when we recruited them that they were going to do but they really didn’t know. They didn’t know if it was going to work or if we would be successful. They believed. The bought in and came in and worked. He played as a freshman and he has played every year.”
If it were up to the sabermetric folks, Martin, coming out of high school at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds with a 4.7 time in the 40, never would have played college football.
“Everybody has this mold,” said Brian Wallace, who coaches the safeties at Nicholls. “They want a football player to be 6-foot, 6-1 or whatever. They have to fit this criteria. All these camps are a big deal so you get height and you get measured and everybody wants a good 40 time.
“I remember a guy like Ahmani Martin - and I went back and looked at his numbers because I want to find another like him – Ahmani is 5-8, 175 pounds and ran a 4.7 at the camp that he had. You look at it on paper and you are not saying, ‘hey that kid,’ but that’s where you have to put on the film. He’s making plays. He’s playing seven different positions. He’s highly productive. He’s a ‘football player.’”
“Everybody goes to camps now,” said Rebowe. “They get the height, weight and the 40 time. He’s one that would test well in that, but the measurables about the height and maybe the speed. The thing you can’t judge with him is how instinctive he is. Once he puts the pads on, he is just as fast on the field then as when he’s running. That says a lot because he’s not a slow step. Everything that he knows, he anticipates, and those are some of the things you can’t teach.
“We use that term a lot around here about being ‘a football player.’ Once those guys prove they can do it, they can do it at any level.”
Although lightly recruited, Martin drew early attention from Tommy Rybacki, Nicholls’ defensive coordinator.
“The first time I heard about him I was actually recruiting for another school and I ran into a SEC coach that was at an East St. John practice and was recruiting this or that guy that was a highly-recruited prospect and said, ‘hey, the best player on that team is No. 44. It doesn’t matter what you ask him to do, he can do it,” said Rybacki, who as an assistant coach at Central Arkansas at the time. “That was the first I ever heard of him.
“Ever since then, my experience has been just, ‘wow, what a good football player; what a headsy football player.’ He’s tough, physical and plays the game the right way. He prepares the right way. He’s just a real quality football player and real quality kid.”
“When we signed Ahmani, he probably played probably about seven different positions on defense,” Wallace recalled. “I remember his high school tape and him playing safety, nickel, and corner, and linebacker, and he was just making plays all over the field.
“We were talking about this team, and obviously as a defense, that we wanted to sign guys who were ‘football players.’ They might not have been the size, the height, the speed, but guys who could make plays. We felt if they could make plays on Friday nights, they had a really good chance of making plays on Saturdays. That’s what Ahmani’s done for us.”
Not only did the Colonels find themselves a “football player,” they also found someone capable of being an immediate contributor. Martin was in the lineup as a true freshman and has been a starter ever since.
“I have a lot of football knowledge, I would say,” said Martin. “My IQ for the game is higher so it didn’t take long for me to catch on the field as it would for some because a lot of it came as second nature. All I had to do was pick up the different terms they used, so it really was easy. I just had to put my foot on the gas and make it work.”
It’s a sentiment that his coaches readily agree with.
“We knew how good, not just as an athlete, but how smart of a football player he was. He was sharp. He knew what to do. He knew the offenses and had a knack for it and we kept seeing him make plays on the field on Friday night. We knew he could do it and he came in here and continued it on Saturdays,” Rebowe said.
“I think the thing that Ahmani had that might have limited another freshman is that, he’s such a football guy. He’s very headsy. He’s very instinctive. He understands the game. I don’t think that’s anything he was just born with. He really works at it, and because of that, he put himself in a position early-on to be able to play,” said Rybacki.
“What helps him out is he has instincts. He has a lot of things you just can’t coach,” offered Wallace. “He can get on the board and draw up every position and understand what they are doing. He understands our concepts; our schemes and he can coach other players. He can see things once in the meeting room and he gets it on the practice field and it translates to making plays on the field.
“He watches film on his own. He prepares himself for the opponent because he loves football. It means something to him. He loves being on the field and things come naturally for him.”
In terms of his style of play, Martin said he tries to emulate the “Honey Badger.”
“A guy my size, you had Tyrann Mathieu, making the plays he was making at his level, and it really motivates you. Before every game, I would watch the highlights just knowing there was someone just about the same size out there making plays. I would watch the highlights and go out and try to make the plays he was making. When it comes down to it, it’s all about making plays,” said Martin, referring to the former LSU and current NFL defensive back.
A safety for most of his years at Nicholls, Martin is now playing more of a “Honey Badger” type role with the Colonels as a nickel back.
“He’s so instinctive. Last year he started for us at free safety, but he played linebacker a lot in high school, so he wants to play everything in the box,” said Wallace. “Sometimes we are on defense and we’re asking him to cover the middle of the field and he’s be stopping the run for a two-yard gain.
“So, we moved him to strong safety and we really transitioned our defense the way we are playing with the scheme to where our nickel can really make an impact on every play. At safety, sometimes when the ball goes the other way, or whatever it is, he’s not making an impact. At the nickel, he really can make an impact. We blitz our nickel a little bit more. He’s a guy that can make an impact on very play, and with his skill set, it’s really what’s worked for himself and his defense.”
“Our depth has improved, for one thing, and just trying to get him in the absolute best position for him to be productive and make plays. I think our move to Nicholls has been beneficial to him. He’s more active in the run game, as well as the pass game, on the perimeter, and he’s been able to help us in both ways there in that position, more so that what we ask our safeties to do sometimes,” added Rybacki.
It's a role the defensive back said he enjoys.
“At nickel, I get to be closer to the ball more and more involved with the run plays as much as being on the last line of defense,” said Martin. “I’m more of one of the front-line guys but I still get to cover people. We have different packages where I go to safety and different things like that.
“I like playing close to the line of scrimmage. I’m quick laterally. When a play is happening, a lot of times I can read the play and know it’s coming and it’s easier for me to make plays.”
There is a lot Martin can look back upon during his tenure at Nicholls.
His first year at Nicholls in 2015, he was part of a Colonel squad that snapped a losing streak that had reached 23 games – then the longest in the nation.
Joined by fellow River Parish brethren like Sully Laiche of Lutcher and Evan Veron of Riverside Academy, Martin was part of a Nicholls team that opened the 2016 season at Georgia and gave the Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference quite a scare before falling 26-24.
“We had a lot of good experiences,” Martin recalled. “We have all the River Parish guys and we take pride in that. We take pride in not backing down from anybody. Going into tough places like that, big schools, we gave them a run for their money. It put a lot of confidence in you. As long as you don’t let the name on the jersey beat you, you got it.”
The 2017 team produced the Colonels’ first winning season since the 2017 season, gave Texas A&M a scare, and wounded up hosting a first-round FCS playoff game.
“That was the first playoff game ever hosted in Thibodaux. That was historical and a great thing to be a part of. The atmosphere was like we were at Georgia or Texas A&M. It felt like they had 100,000 people in the stands,” said Martin.
This year’s team has been ranked all year and the Colonels, currently 7-3 on the season after having produced back-to-back winning campaigns in school history for the first time since the 1985-86 seasons, opened the year with a 26-23 overtime win over the Kansas Jayhawks of the Big XII.
“That was big. It was my first FBS win. It was Coach (Rebowe’s) first FBS win. It wasn’t like Georgia, but it was still big. It was probably one of the biggest things that happened since I’ve been here,” Martin said.
When Martin arrived at Nicholls, it all began with a dream. As he is about to depart, reality couldn’t be much sweeter.
“The dream and the reality is exactly where I expected it to be at. We are looking at a conference championship. We are looking at getting the automatic bid to the playoffs and then we are not really satisfied with what we came out last year. I felt like we were better than that and could have made a better run in the playoffs but this year, we plan on getting a win and making a run for it.”