IOWA CITY, Iowa — Oliver Martin has a fluidity to returning punts that appears almost effortless.
The Iowa City West wide receiver returned two punts for 78 yards in a recent 59-7 win against Burlington. He hauled in both punts near the right sideline, crossed the field and finished both returns inside his opponent’s 10-yard line. Both plays led to touchdowns in the rout.
Martin, a four-star senior recruit by 247Sports, said he relies on instinct more than design when returning punts.
“I run to where I see the open gaps in the field,” he said. “I just react to defenders coming at me. There’s not really a designed way for us to run on punt returns. So you catch it, and as guys come to you, you react. You cut one way and follow your blockers.
“The nerve-racking part is just making sure you catch it and don’t drop it because you’ll have guys coming and they’ll be right in your face. But once you catch it, it’s fun.”
Martin, 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, was overlooked by most major programs after his junior season. Martin told Rivals’ Luke Feddersen in May he had three Division I scholarship offers, each from a Mid-American Conference school. Then Martin’s prospects blew up this past summer, which has added to a chaotic fall.
Michigan State and Wisconsin were the first to offer Martin. The hometown Hawkeyes quickly followed. After a strong performance at The Opening in July, the offers started flowing. Michigan, Oregon and Notre Dame joined the Martin party. The process has become a whirlwind for the low-key Martin.
“At first, I was just trying to get seen, going to camps and showing coaches my skill set and what I could do,” Martin said. “Once they saw what I could do, I got some offers. It’s just trying to decide what’s the best fit for me.”
Making a good decision for Martin includes calling coaches multiple times during the week and taking unofficial visits. He attended the Notre Dame-Duke game on Sept. 24, then traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Wolverines-Badgers on Oct. 1.
Martin, who attends high school two miles from Kinnick Stadium, remains in frequent contact with Iowa coaches and has visited the campus several times. Martin’s recruitment is an hourly topic among Iowa fans on social media and message boards.
“I haven’t had a whole lot of pressure, not as much as you might think,” Martin said. “I try to block everything out from the outside.”
Along with his parents, Martin has spoken with Iowa City West coach Garrett Hartwig about his recruiting prospects. Hartwig has told Martin to not rush the process and “do what you’re comfortable doing.” Hartwig described Martin as “very quiet, very humble, very hardworking.”
“He’s a great kid and good player, and we’re lucky to have him the last few years,” Hartwig said. “It wasn’t a huge surprise that he caught the eye of so many big schools because he’s always been very good.”
Martin plans to wrap up his commitment by Christmas, if not sooner. But he’s more focused on helping Iowa City West reach the Class 4A playoffs.
In six games, Martin has 40 catches for 605 yards and six touchdowns. Against Burlington, he hauled in a 9-yard pass on a hitch pattern and blew past a cornerback on a fade for a 47-yard touchdown. Midway through the second quarter, he ran a slant route, bounced off a defender and scored on a 20-yard pass. Martin was done by halftime — Iowa City West led, 45-0 — with three catches for 76 yards and two scores to go along with his punt returns.
“It helps to have a great player like Oliver,” Hartwig said. “He makes (the coaches) look good most of the time. We try to set things up the best we can for him, and, at the end of the day, he makes plays.”