Quarterback Tate Martell halted a five-year recruiting roller coaster when he enrolled early at Ohio State Jan. 12, arriving in Columbus accompanied by lofty and occasionally burdensome expectations.
"He's definitely the most prestigious quarterback recruit they've had," said Jeremy Birmingham, a staple of the Buckeyes recruiting beat who reports at Landof10.com. "In terms of hype, you probably have to go all the way back to Terrelle Pryor [in 2008], but he was more of a project."
How much hype does Martell carry with him?
Martell, a good student who had repeated seventh grade so he'd be more advanced in high school football, according to Bob Condetta of the Seattle Times, issued a verbal commitment to then-Washington Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian before eighth grade. Then, four-and-a-half years later, Martell accepted honors as Gatorade National Football Player of the Year.
Weeks before moving onto campus, the 5-star wunderkind reflected on the origins of a journey that placed him under a nationwide microscope for much of his high school career.
"I wouldn't have offered me at a young age," Martell said. "I've said this so many times now. How do you know the kid is going to be good when he gets older?"
It turns out, the 14-year-old who pledged to a Pac-12 program ended up just fine.
Martell finished a three-year stretch as starter at Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman without a single loss, claiming national champion accolades each season. He tallied nearly 10,000 total yards, 148 touchdowns and just nine interceptions during 45 consecutive victories.
|Tate Martell's Career Stats at Bishop Gorman HS|
|Year||Passing Yards||Passing TD||INT||Rushing Yards||Rushing TD|
In terms of great prep quarterback careers this decade, only current Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray measures up against Martell. The prized 2015 prospect was 43-0 with three state titles at Allen High School (Texas), piling up 14,525 total yards and 186 scores.
So did Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer just add his most accomplished quarterback recruit in a career that includes tutelage of multiple Heisman Trophy contenders, three national champions and two first-round NFL draft selections?
"That's not for me to determine," Martell said. "It's definitely cool knowing that you're one of the guys who people talk about being one of the best. ... People will be able to dispute whatever is said."
Martell has always heard from haters. The confident demeanor that correlates with immense success is an easy target, and so is his height.
According to Scout.com, he stands 5'10 ½". Thursday was Martell's 19th birthday, so it's possible but not likely that a late growth spurt is on the way.
Erik Richards, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl national recruiting director, says doubters could be humbled in coming years.
"Don't ever bet against that guy. Don't ever count him out," Richards said. "There's just something about him where the size is not a factor in his particular game. You can go ahead and throw size out the window."
It's true, Martell has been an improvisational magician on the field these past few seasons, drawing comparisons—at least on the field—to another star quarterback who overcame a lack of ideal height. References to Johnny Manziel started to surface his sophomore year and continued all the way through the All-American Bowl telecast:
Manziel, listed at 5'11 ¾" upon his NFL arrival, used his legs and arm to earn the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Though his NFL career quickly fizzled due to off-field issues, there is recent proof of undersized passers finding success at the sport's highest level.
Drew Brees (6'0") and Russell Wilson (5'11") are the NFL's only starting quarterbacks who stand sub-6'1". Both have led their teams to a Super Bowl victory, and each posted top-10 passing yardage totals this season.
Size seems to become a greater concern when you write Martell's dimensions down on paper and compare them to some of the other quarterbacks who've thrived under Meyer's guidance.
Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was 6'3", 215 pounds when he and Meyer joined forces at Florida. Eventual No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith was 6'4", and title-winning Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones was 6'5", 250 pounds by the end of his run in Columbus.
Current Buckeyes starter J.T. Barrett, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, is listed at 6'2". Promising younger passers Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow are both 6'3".
"Obviously there's the generic stuff everyone wants—a guy with a big arm who can run and is accurate," Birmingham said. "Tate is all those things, but the reason they went after him when there were other quarterbacks that were maybe more physically 'the standard' at Ohio State is his ability to lead a football team and competitive nature."
This trait became apparent to Meyer in a face-to-face meeting during Martell's visit to campus last March. At the time, Martell was committed to Texas A&M, his second pledge of the process.
"According to people I've talked with who were in the room, Urban was just shocked at how similar the two were in their mindset and the way they attack things," Birmingham said.
Martell decommitted from the Aggies six weeks later. He became a member of Ohio State's acclaimed 2017 class in June, joining a group set to face national championship aspirations on an annual basis.
"That sort of 'I'm not going to lose' attitude is really what sold them, because there were better fits potentially from a physical standpoint," Birmingham said.
Another trait Martell shares with Meyer: He doesn't like the thought of spending time on the wrong side of a scoreboard.
"I hate losing," he said. "My drive to win is second to none, I can promise you that."
He repeatedly provided evidence of this desire during campaigns at Bishop Gorman that featured showdowns against highly respected programs from every corner of the country. A pair of September 2014 matchups with Southern California schools stand out.
In his second career start, Martell and Bishop Gorman faced a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit at Corona Centennial High School. He served up an early sample of what would become a late-game calling card by capping off the late rally with a game-winning two-point conversion pass completion.
Just two weeks later, fellow national title contender St. John Bosco visited Las Vegas, led by Josh Rosen, the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit in 2015. Martell stole the spotlight during an ESPN broadcast, collecting 244 total yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 statement win.
Two years after being thrust onto the recruiting radar, a young quarterback phenom truly introduced himself to a national audience that night:
Playing alongside Snoop Dogg's son, Muhammad Ali's grandson and a steady stream of Power Five prospects at Bishop Gorman, Martell gradually became the face of what would develop into one of America's most recognizable high school football brands.
"I've been following Tate for a while now, even before I became a high-level recruit," Jaelan Phillips, the 2017 class' top-ranked defensive prospect, said. "Me and my friends would look up Tate's film because he's explosive and fun to watch. There's not many people who can do it like he can. His combination of speed, versatility, accuracy and power is second to none."
Phillips, a UCLA pledge who joined Martell as one of six finalists for the U.S. Army All-American Player of the Year award, is also adamant there's more to his contemporary than multi-threat ability.
"He's the most competitive player I've ever seen," Phillips said. "Tate being slightly undersized, I think he kind of uses that as a chip on his shoulder. He's showing people: It doesn't matter how big I am, I'm still going to dominate."
Fellow Player of the Year finalist Najee Harris, rated No. 1 overall in Scout.com's rankings and enrolled early at Alabama, would've voted Martell as award winner if he had a selection.
Martell's win-loss record "defines a lot," Harris said.
Martell's unblemished mark at Bishop Gorman was greatly tested Sept. 30 when Florida football factory St. Thomas Aquinas High School came to town for another nationally televised showdown. The Gaels trailed 17-10 in overtime, and after overthrowing an open receiver on third down, Martell faced a do-or-die 4th-and-goal attempt from the 7-yard line.
He encouraged coaches to implement a play call that had worked earlier in the contest: "Spread Left 62-XY Choice."
In the huddle, he described the complexities of the play in detail for its two integral route-runners, juniors Jalen Nailor and Brevin Jordan. They listened, and the result was a game-saving touchdown toss to Nailor.
The game extended to a third overtime, when Martell again connected with Nailor for a score while trailing by seven. An offside penalty made the ensuing extra-point attempt easier.
There was only one option in Martell's mind.
"Let's go for it," he urged.
Bishop Gorman's staff was on the same page. Martell converted a pitch to running back Biaggio Ali Walsh (Ali's grandson), who plunged into the end zone and kept a remarkable unbeaten streak intact:
The team's average margin of victory for its final nine games was 57 points.
"I've sat back and kind of reflected on it a little bit," Martell said. "We played against probably the toughest schedule anyone has seen, and we went and got it done."
He now seems to be hooked to the highest level of competition, and it's a key part of the reason he'll spend the next few years in Columbus.
"The real difference-maker was an opportunity to compete for national championships," Birmingham said. "Tate considers himself an elite player, and in his mind, elite players need to play at elite schools. There are only a handful of schools right now in the country that really fit that bill. In his mind, if he's going to be the best player he wants to be, it had to be at a place like Ohio State."
According to Richards, the match of Martell and Meyer reaches deeper than a simple refusal to accept second-best. He watched the all-star game with esteemed quarterback instructors Tony Ballard and Steve Clarkson, and the trio came to the consensus that Meyer has never paired his innovative spread-offense philosophies with a player so tailor-made for the scheme.
"We can't recall a high school or college quarterback who runs the zone read to the precision that he runs it," Richards said. "It's going to be hard to keep him off the field because he fits Ohio State's offense, and he runs it better than Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. You do not know if Tate has the ball or the running back has the ball."
Beyond the wins, stats and size, Martell's smarts make him such a captivating quarterback recruit. Few high school passers have ever been as dialed in to the dimensions of an offensive attack.
"I literally knew everything [in 2016] when we're on the ball," Martell said. "I'd be able to read the front and which way it would be easier to run the zone to. Everything kind of clicked. My on-the-ball communication with teammates was huge for us."
It's an element that didn't go unnoticed when Buckeyes coaches gained an early glimpse of their future signee.
"They saw him back in the spring running practices at Bishop Gorman and were just amazed at the way he was able to control his team's offense," Birmingham said. "He was basically running the offense on the field more than an assistant coach."
Richard LeCounte, an All-American safety and Georgia enrollee, shared a seven-on-seven team roster with Martell last summer at The Opening. He says defensive backs must always be on their toes when Martell is behind center.
"Tate is really smart, and I love that," LeCounte said. "He really sits back to analyze everything a defense throws at him. That's something you look for in a quarterback, like a general who leads with his play."
Martell repeatedly led teammates through high-pressure stakes at Bishop Gorman, but he now collides with a new reality. Barrett, the Buckeyes' veteran starter, will be back for his senior season, while former blue-chip prospects Burrow (redshirt freshman) and Haskins (true freshman) are chomping at the bit to claim starting snaps.
"The biggest thing for Tate is an adjustment to not being 'The Man,' and that's something that's not easy for someone who just won three straight national championships," Birmingham said. "The return of J.T. Barrett means Tate understands he's likely going to redshirt, barring someone transferring."
Martell knows it won't be business as usual in Columbus, but he's ready for the new challenge.
"It's a chance I'm willing to take," he said. "I know who I am and the player that I am. It's a perfect offense for me. The quarterbacks run the ball quite a bit and that's a big thing for me. I think I have an advantage in that aspect of the game."
Changes could be on the horizon for an Ohio State offense that failed to score a single point against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson is the new offensive coordinator, while Chip Kelly protege Ryan Day takes over as quarterbacks coach.
"It will be interesting to see how they mesh those two things together," Birmingham said. "I think Chip Kelly's New Hampshire stuff is more up Tate's alley because of the mobility, but obviously Kevin Wilson's offense has been very productive for quarterbacks as well. Tate has a much stronger arm than some people think, so you should expect to see this offense be a fit for what he does either way."
This staff shuffle could actually work to Martell's advantage. In many ways, he'll be on an even level with veterans when it comes to schematic understanding.
"The hard part is picking up the offense, and learning it front to back," Martell said. "Where you're going with the ball on blitzes and calling protections. That's what you have to do. That's why I'm [enrolling early], so I can figure that stuff out."
Tebow watched Chris Leak start at quarterback throughout his first season in Gainesville. Though he never supplanted Leak that fall, Meyer made Tebow a factor on offense and things peaked with two touchdowns in the final game of his first college campaign—a national championship game victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Yes, Tebow is four inches taller than Martell. Yes, Ohio State's quarterback depth chart represents one of the steepest roster climbs in college football.
But doubt Martell—and what Meyer sees in him—at your own risk.
"I can tell you this," Richards said. "He won't sit patiently, and he won't sit lying down."
Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Quotes and observations obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Prospect ratings courtesy of Scout.
Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.