TAMPA — In practice throughout Bucs training camp, long after the last defender had tugged at the ball as he sped past, Doug Martin kept running.
At the point where most players would pull up and slow in a noncontact drill, Martin accelerated and took off.
"That gets you ready for the game," Martin said. "Finish 10 yards past the last defender or finish in the end zone on some plays. It also gets you ready for your conditioning during the game and gets your legs ready for the game, so that's something that I try to do."
So when Martin rushed to his right on the opening drive of Monday's preseason game against the Bengals, he bounced off two tackles and again was pulling away from everyone else on the field, gaining 30 yards to the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown in the Bucs' 25-11 rout.
"If you watch the guy practice out there, he's finishing every play like a wild man," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "I mean, we're constantly telling our guys: 'Finish, finish, finish.' … We do these comment sheets after every practice where the coaches are grading it. I'm going, 'Nice finish, (number) 22; nice finish, 22.' That's on my sheet about 50 times a day."
The hope among the Bucs and their fans is that Martin can rekindle the magic of his rookie year, when he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, and caught 49 passes for 472 yards. His two seasons since have been marked by injuries — he has missed 15 of 32 games — and limited production.
The Bucs this year declined a fifth-year contract option for Martin that would have paid him $5.62 million; he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. This, too, is a tremendous motivation for him, and his coaches see that drive in Martin.
"Doug definitely has a pep in his step and a smile on his face," Koetter said, smiling.
"It's a contract year. Hey, we've all been there."
Martin, 26, went to California in the offseason, committed to getting himself not only healthy but well-conditioned enough to help prevent injuries. He has dropped to 208 pounds — about 5 fewer than he was last season — eliminating bad foods from his diet: "Chinese, pizza, all that stuff."
A healthy, leaner body has made for a quicker, more confident Martin.
"Yeah, I do feel a little quicker," he said. "Like I said, 4 or 5 pounds has made a difference."
After Lovie Smith was hired as coach after the 2013 season, the Bucs used a third-round draft pick last year on Charles Sims, who was to challenge for Martin's role as a primary ballcarrier. Bobby Rainey and Mike James, who have had 150-yard games in the past two seasons while Martin was injured, also were in the mix.
Just like on those practice runs, Martin has pulled away from everyone else this year. The third game of the preseason is typically when starters play the most, and Martin wants a long look tonight against the Browns, to prepare himself for the season opener 15 days later.
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"More workload is what I want," Martin said of tonight. "First game I had six carries or seven carries, and I played a quarter for the next one. I'll hopefully be able to play three quarters for this next game, and it'll be interesting to see where we are as an offense and what we can do."
There are only a few teammates remaining who were around for Martin's 2012 rookie year, but those who remember it see a familiar look in him at practice, a promising sign for what could be ahead.
"Doug overall just looks better," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "The shape he came in for camp was ridiculous. I saw him in the spring. I told Doug, 'Man, you are starting to look like your old self.' Then he showed up to camp in spectacular shape, and all camp he has been who we expect Doug to be. It's starting to come alive in the preseason, and I think he is going to have a huge year."
A productive running game, led by Martin, would take pressure off rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, help lower his turnovers and give Tampa Bay the balance they hope to have on offense. Ask Martin if he feels like a rookie all over again, and his response is that he could feel even better.
"I wouldn't say a rookie all over again exactly, but a little smarter," he said. "Definitely smarter and aware of what I need to do to keep myself healthy."