BYU added few to '23 signing class, but RB Martin, DT Latu worth the wait

BYU Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake works the sideline during the game against the Utah Tech Trailblazers at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

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PROVO — The BYU football program did most of its recruiting and signing for the recruiting class of 2023 in December, when it added 13 high school recruits before reeling in a dozen Division I and junior college transfers.

But the Cougars saved one of their biggest signees of the class for Feb. 1.

On the first day of the traditional signing period, BYU flipped running back LJ Martin, a former Stanford commit who ran for 6,150 yards and totaled 71 touchdowns during a standout four-year varsity career at Canutillo High near El Paso, Texas.

With the benefit of hindsight, BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick admitted that the Cougars actually signed Martin during the early signing period in December, but the four-year varsity starter wanted to celebrate signing day with his school and community, and the Cougars obliged after Martin de-committed from Stanford when former coach David Shaw resigned.

"He felt really indebted to the community, to his school; a kid signing with a Power Five program is a big deal there," Roderick said of the tailback who attended high school 28 miles from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. "He wanted it to be a special moment.

"(After) what happened at Stanford, he showed some interest. It probably didn't hurt that we ran the ball the way we did when we played them. … But he's a great fit, great academics and high standards. He's got great parents, and we recruited them as hard as we did him."

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound running back made it official Wednesday, selecting the Cougars over offers from Stanford, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and SMU, among others. Martin was a three-time all-district performer for the Eagles, where he also lettered in basketball and track and field, and looks to add to another standout running back legacy following in the shoes of Jamaal Williams, Tyler Allgeier and recently graduated Chris Brooks.

"He's big, aggressive, fast and super athletic," BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga said. "He did amazing things in Texas, and it will be an exciting time for him. I'm excited to utilize him in the passing game; he's definitely an all-around back, and someone I've been looking forward to getting here."

Martin's addition, as well as defensive tackle signee David Latu from Snow College, bumped the Cougars' 247Sports composite ranking to No. 66 nationally — what is believed to be the highest since the recruiting service began its current rankings in 1999.

It's not the intention for BYU's coaching staff, which has traditionally relied on development and training to make up for recruiting deficiencies that include working with returning missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints every two years.

Speaking of which, the Cougars also announced 13 players from previous recruiting classes, most of whom are returning from two-year church missions over the past two years. The primarily Utah-based group has reported to campus, except for former Lone Peak star John Henry Daley who will return from a mission this summer.

Still, it's a good start to the Big 12 era, which kicked off Tuesday with the release of the program's first conference schedule since leaving the Mountain West in 2011.

Martin, who had several Big 12 offers, will play a key role in that group, with the potential for immediate playing time.

"He's a beast," head coach Kalani Sitake said of Martin. "The guy breaks big-time runs, breaks tackles, makes cuts. He's physical, active, and he has great hips and great vision. He's got some speed, too. He's a big play waiting to happen; we have a rookie out there playing for Atlanta who had a similar style."

A three-star recruit by 247Sports and four-star prospect by, Martin is the second ESPN Top 300 recruit (No. 266 overall) to commit to the Cougars' recruiting class of 2023 after four-star tight end Jackson Bowers opted to sign in the winter (Bowers is ranked No. 257 overall by ESPN).

Martin, who is ranked the No. 37 running back recruit in the country by 247Sports, burst on the scene as a junior, when he totaled 2,737 yards and 29 touchdowns — his first of back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons for Canutillo.

"I usually don't coach kids for four years because the freshmen are separated (in school)," Canutillo head coach Scott Brooks told the NBC news affiliate in El Paso. "But L.J.'s been with us since the fourth game of his freshman year, and he's just a unique individual. Straight-A student, yes-sir, no-sir; a leader. He treats every kid on the team with respect.

"You'd never know walking down the hall that LJ is a big-time recruit; he's just a normal kid going to his classes."

Committed to Stanford since June 28, 2022, Martin — who formerly committed to Texas Tech — pried the door open on his commitment after Shaw resigned following the 2022 regular season. He continued to take home visits from the Cardinal, among several others, and Unga and offensive analyst Andrew Mitchell paid him an in-home visit during the open recruiting period in early December.

Martin joins a three-player traditional signing period at BYU alongside Snow College transfer Latu and Timpview standout Motekiai Mo'unga, who recently revealed a top four of Hawaii, UNLV, Utah State and Southern Utah before reversing course and tweeting "I'm staying home" in the middle of signing day to fortify BYU's defensive line — an admitted area of concern for new defensive coordinator Jay Hill.

"I felt like we needed to really shore up the interior of our defensive line, and that's where we did take a couple of players," said Hill, who also brought FCS All-American cornerback Eddie Heckard and walk-on defensive end Nuulletau Sellesin from his previous stop at Weber State. "But the reality is, we're never going to turn down a big-time player; I don't care if we have enough scholarship spots."

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Latu signed his national letter of intent after visiting Provo with two Badger teammates, preferred walk-ons Stone Mulitalo and John Taumoepeau, while Mo'unga

All three could see immediate playing time on the defensive line, but especially Latu. The mammoth freshman from Bountiful who played at Bingham High totaled 23 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery last year for the Badgers en route to NJCAA All-America second-team honors.

The former Deseret News all-state first-team selection for Miners served a mission in Tonga and San Jose, California before enrolling at Snow. He selected BYU over interest from Utah, Washington State, Boise State, Utah State, Weber State and TCU, among others.

Sitake said the Cougars will open spring football practices March 6, a few weeks earlier than past seasons. Additional details of spring will be finalized at a later date.

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