DALLAS — At least for stretches, Tate Martell was Ohio State’s first-string quarterback this season.
The freshman was taking snaps from Billy Price. He was handing off to J.K. Dobbins. He was even getting to call his own number on some designed quarterback rushes.
Here’s the splash of cold water: This was only practice, and there are no plans for Martell to peel off the redshirt and play in the Cotton Bowl Classic against USC on Friday.
But the Buckeyes had considered previously turning the touted recruit loose in a game. And his versatility and improved maturity actually made it a bit closer to a reality than could have been predicted before the season.
“We talked about it,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. “Especially when we got down to the end with the situation we had with J.T.’s injury when we were playing the rival game. I think he would have wanted to play the one game if we needed him, but we’re like, ‘Hey, wait a minute now. That’s a whole year.’
“He would lose a year of eligibility if he plays in that game, and we didn’t have it ready, but it was always kind of in the back of our minds. We were fortunate enough to stay healthy and we didn’t need it.”
The Buckeyes aren’t going to need him against the Trojans and aren’t going to waste that entire year on a bowl game. But Martell has proven to be an invaluable member of the scout team this season as he’s accepted his role outside of the spotlight after a highly publicized recruitment helped turn him into a national star before even playing a down at Ohio State.
Martell has spent time lining up at running back. He’s played wide receiver a time or two. And, of course, he’s also been called on to simulate Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and Penn State’s Trace McSorley at his natural position, earning rave reviews for his playmaking along the way.
His work in that variety of spots has had the wheels spinning in the minds of Ohio State’s offensive coaching staff, though ultimately they were able to resist the urge to fire up Martell in meaningful action and kept him parked on the sideline. But after one more game, that redshirt is coming off no matter what — and he’ll be in the middle of the action at quarterback as the Buckeyes move into a J.T. Barrett-less future.
Not that Martell hasn’t already found ways to make a mark and stoke the hype machine heading into his second season with the program.
“The way J.T. has prepped and practiced has been great … and Tate became a sponge and really started absorbing coaching,” Wilson said. “The notoriety of being a highly touted quarterback and all the accolades he came in with kind of got shoved aside and he really took off in the midpoint of the season.
“He’s been a phenomenal quarterback. But based on the look, there were some weeks where we thought we needed him at tailback, and he went and played tailback just because he’s a nice athlete. He’s really kind of become a great [worker] for a freshman, and as a quarterback he has grown a lot. He’s still a young pup, but he’s growing and being a good teammate. I think that’s hard at quarterback, because at quarterback you’re always the guy. I think because of that, he’s earned a lot of respect from a lot of peers on this team.”
The next step is earning some playing time somewhere other than the practice field.
Maybe Tuesday was a glimpse into the future, maybe it was just more selfless work preparing teammates. Either way, Martell’s chance to leave an even bigger mark will be coming soon.