A long time ago, so far back that it was two coaching staffs ago, Arizona was so interested in Martell Irby it offered the 3-star prospect from San Diego a scholarship to play running back. Six years later he’s preparing for his debut with the Wildcats, but as a defensive back.
And a walk-on.
Of all the players Arizona plucked out of the NCAA transfer portal this offseason, Irby’s path to Tucson is no doubt the most unique. A one-time Wildcat commit, he ultimately chose UCLA to start his career and spent four seasons with the Bruins—with a switch from offense to defense along the way—before medically retiring from football in 2022.
Then, while away from football, something changed.
“I missed doing this, the grind,” the 5-foot-9, 208-pound Irby said Tuesday, during Arizona’s preseason media day. “It’s just crazy. It sounds like something out of a movie, but I’m just living it day to day.”
A running back at UCLA from 2018-20, Irby switched to DB in 2021 and appeared in all 12 games that season. He was preparing for his fifth season with the Bruins when, just before the start of spring practice, he was in a car accident.
“And then I was on the side and in that time period mentally, my mental health was just in a bad place, so I decided to step away from the game,” he said. “I was doing school, I was done with ball.”
Irby can’t pinpoint when, during that time off, he decided he wanted to come back. It wasn’t during the 2022 season, since he was enjoying just being a fan watching games on TV.
“It was more so just kind of appreciating the game,” he said. “I’m not a player. I have nothing going on. I’m just watching ball and I have my whole life. But being back, I can see how I missed it. And how happy I am, to be doing this or to be playing.”
The first conversations he had with Arizona began in December when he reached out to defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen, who was on the UCLA staff in 2020 and 2021. And there was real talk on both ends of the line.
“I was 100 percent honest with Johnny,” Irby said. “I’m like Coach, I’m overweight. I’ve been sitting ... I’ve been chilling, not doing too much. But Coach Johnny knew me at UCLA, he knew the type of person I am. And I told him, could you give me this opportunity? I’m just gonna run with it and I’ll work hard every day.
“And he said, I believe you. So he told me they had a spot for me. He didn’t have a scholarship, but he had a spot.”
You read that right. After five years of having his education paid for, among other things, Irby’s final college season—graduate classes, housing, etc.—will be entirely on his dime. And he’s perfectly fine with that.
“I feel like not only would not only would it inspire so many people, to keep football to focus,” Irby said. “I’m doing this because I love football, not because they’re paying me, not because I’m on scholarship, not because it’s cheap or makes my life easier, but because I love football. So that was kind of my perspective. And being able to be around young men that may not really understand how blessed we are, or the opportunities that we have. So I took it as an opportunity to come be a part of something, come influence young men, come spark a lot.”
Treydan Stukes, who began his UA career as a walk-on and is now a defensive captain, finds Irby’s reverse path inspiring, albeit odd.
“Weird is a way to describe it,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic that he has that belief in himself. He’s betting on himself to just come in and play. I mean, he wants to just play football and that’s really the main idea. it’s not about you know, money or scholarships and stuff. He just wants to be a part of a good program and play football.”
Irby is in line to be Stukes’ backup at nickel corner, but Nansen said he could also be in dime packages when Arizona takes a linebacker off the field for obvious passing situations.
“He’s a playmaker when he’s out there,” Nansen said.
Irby said it was tough when he first got back on the field in March, being out of shape physically and mentally. But by the end of spring he looked up to speed and his position coach, John Richardson, thought Irby was in the best shape of his career entering fall camp.
“He dedicated himself to the weight room,” Richardson said. “I mean, he’s lost, I believe, over 20 pounds since he’s been here. He definitely put the time in, but you get a guy who’s on limited time. He’s got to prove himself in a short amount of time, but he adds so much great things on and off the field to our team.”