In a recent team meeting, Georgia Tech defensive tackle Chris Martin was one of a handful of players singled out by coach Geoff Collins for the effort scores he had achieved in preseason practice. Martin's effort, as measured by the team's Catapult wearable GPS technology system, was high above the average for players at his position, and much better than what he had done in spring.
"Chris Martin, give him three," Collins said, and team members answered with three quick claps, the ritual response when Collins highlights different Yellow Jackets players.
Martin's explanation for his improvement is simple. He has been motivated to honor the memory of the late Brandon Adams, his teammate and best friend who died unexpectedly March 23.
"It's just a different feeling when you know that somebody who would have been an all-conference player, a next-level player, is not here," Martin said. "I feel like I'm only doing him justice by giving my all to try to be that same person."
The methods by which Martin has sought to be his best are many. He attacked summer workouts, driven, in his words, "100 percent" by his desire to honor Adams. He improved his diet and, he said, "stopped eating fast food and all the nasty things defensive tackles love," which has helped him shed fat. He has been an eager pupil to defensive-line coach Larry Knight. He has sought to be a team leader.
His habits follow words shared with him by offensive quality-control specialist Will Glover, the former Yellow Jackets standout wide receiver.
"Coach Glover told me the only way that (Adams) stays with me on earth is if I play and live like him or try to be better than him," Martin said. "So I'm really taking it to heart, and that's what I try to do every day."
The team continues to honor the beloved Adams. Before stretching at practice, players pound their chest and chant "Big B!" three times, and they end practice with another "Big B!" chant. In the team meeting room and in the defensive tackle room, a seat is left vacant for Adams. Players will wear decals on their helmets this year with Adams' No. 90. He remains on the official team roster, with no one assigned his jersey number. Martin said he also has his own personal way of remembering him.
"We've definitely been there for each other," defensive tackle Brentavious Glanton said. "I think everybody's doing a little bit better now. I feel like 'Big B' would want us to be happy and be proud."
Martin's efforts to honor Adams have revealed themselves in his play thus far in the preseason.
"Very, very explosive," Knight said. "He's trying his best to be a leader. He's taking everything that I've been teaching him, that coach Collins has been teaching him, that (defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker) has been teaching him."
"Chris is crazy," defensive tackle T.K. Chimedza said. "His get-off off the ball, he's just one of those energy guys. He's doing his thing. His effort as far as Catapult, it's skyrocketing. So Chris is definitely a big impact on the D-tackles."
A junior from Grayson High, Martin has not had many successes in his playing career. He played in two games as a freshman. Teammates touted his performance in spring practice in 2018, but he played in only six games last season at nose tackle in former defensive coordinator Nate Woody's 3-4 defense, behind Kyle Cerge-Henderson and Adams on the depth chart.
"The narrative I've always felt about myself is that I always have a good spring, and I always fall off in fall camp," Martin said. "So my main focus was making sure that I stayed consistent every single day, and I feel like I've done that. I've finally put myself in position to maybe help."
The opportunity is there, as defensive tackle is one of the least experienced positions on the team, and Collins' "above the line" playing-time policy has opened playing time to all players who can contribute. On Wednesday, Martin was working with the first defense, alongside Chimedza, a redshirt freshman.
"I definitely feel more explosive, quicker, kind of like how I felt before I got into college and started putting on weight," said Martin, listed at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds. "I'm finally playing fluid and feeling good about myself."
For a team with question marks, like a shortage of experience on the defensive line, surpassing the low expectations held for the Jackets will require a number of players like Martin playing far better than they've played to this point. Martin is ready to do his part and sees it elsewhere. Martin said the offensive line, which he practices against daily, is "night and day" improved from last season.
"They've just got great hands and feet," he said. "They're a lot smarter, too. They pick up on things quick. They can beat us with their minds, without even straight physical stuff. So when they put it all together, they're really dangerous."
From the toil of August on the practice field, with the memory of his best friend in his heart, Martin looks forward with hope.
"I definitely feel like our group is special," he said. "I'm confident in our team. I like us against people. I just feel like we're working real hard, and I think we're going to see the results that we've been working hard for."