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Illinois DC 'never had a defensive back as versatile' as Quan Martin


Many players aspire to be versatile so they can help their team in any way possible, but the reality is that not everyone has the skill set to handle multiple positions. 

That's why Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry sees Quan Martin as such a unique commodity. 

"I've never had a player like him ever," Henry said. 

It's hard to stand out in a secondary as talented as the one Illinois boasted last year. The Illini allowed the eighth fewest passing yards in college football, and three of the key players in that defensive back group -- Martin, Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown -- were taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. 

Illinois likes to say they recruit players as defensive backs and find out where they fit later. Witherspoon, cornerback, and Brown, safety, both had more established positions last year and didn't deviate from them as often. Martin, however, was moved all around Illinois defensive backfield with snaps at wide corner, slot corner and safety among several others. 

His ability to thrive at all of them is what makes him so special. 

"There's not much that he can't do," Henry said. "I've been doing this for 12 years. I have never had a defensive back as versatile as him."

Martin started out as a corner for the Illini back he committed to the program as a three-star recruit, but versatility has always been a part of his skill set. Even when he was primarily a wide corner back in 2018 and 2019, he still saw snaps in the slot, near the box and at free safety.

Illinois' willingness to move Martin around the defense reached its apex in 2022. The majority of his snaps came in the slot, but 177 of his 786 total snaps came at free safety. He also lined up in the box (44 snaps) and out wide (73 snaps).

What that gave Illinois is more freedom with their personnel.

"On certain personnel grouping, he went to free [safety] and certain personnel groupings, he went to nickel," Henry said. "When you have a guy that's so versatile on the field, teams don't know what subgroup you're in. He can go from covering a slot receiver to a tight end."

Check out the top photos of the Commanders' newest defensive back, Quan Martin, during his college career at Illinois (via The Associated Press)

It also helped that Martin could handle any responsibility that his coaches threw at him. He could cover well enough, but Henry said he was also a "tremendous blitzer," and he was a solid tackler. Sometimes they could roll him to the post, but he could also cover the flat.

He's not linebacker, Henry said, but he's not a true defensive back, either. He can truly play anywhere, and that make him a problem for offenses.

"You got a guy like that on the football field, man, it opens up your playbook," Henry said.

It also helps that Martin prides himself on his knowledge of the game. He believes it allows him to compete at a high level because he is able to comprehend different points of view. It allows him to understand route concepts, especially in the slot.

"Just being able to play any position in the back end at any given moment in the game just shows my understanding of the game and my football IQ," Martin said.

Martin's combination of knowledge and athletic traits allows him to be what he needs to be on the field.

"I think it allows you to really come into your own at the NFL level," Henry said. "When I tell you his best days are ahead of him, that's truly what it is."

Martin got plenty of opportunities to show off his talents during OTAs and minicamp. He got reps with the starting defense during 11-on-11 drills, and plays like a deflection that led to an interception showed the difference he can make for the unit.

The fact that Martin is already creating a role for the Commanders doesn't surprise Henry at all.

"Once he steps on that field, he kind of transforms a little bit," Henry said.

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