CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Tate Martell has been the next big thing since he got his first scholarship offer as an eighth grader. At the time, he could hardly believe his luck, astonished that 14-year-olds could get offers, let alone accept them.
That offer from Washington put his entire football career into overdrive. In addition to continuing his work with quarterback guru Steve Clarkson (who has trained Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart and many others), Martell moved from San Diego to Las Vegas to attend Bishop Gorman High to boost his prospects further, starred in a documentary about his recruitment and ultimately settled on attending Ohio State.
But when he arrived in Columbus, Ohio, Martell had J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins in line ahead of him. Martell waited his turn, believing 2019 would be his year. Then Urban Meyer stepped down. Martell says he was told toward the end of the season he would be better off finding another school. Shortly after former No. 1 overall recruit Justin Fields announced he was transferring to Ohio State, Martell told the world he would transfer himself.
“Ohio State, that was my dream school,” Martell said during an interview this spring. “I was sick to my stomach. There was almost a point where I was like, ‘I’m going to roll the dice anyway’ because I wanted to be there.
“After being there for two years and not playing, I couldn’t risk it anymore. There’s a point where you love your teammates, you love everything about the school and the people there, but you have to start thinking about yourself and not doing it because these are my teammates. They all understood, and they weren’t upset at all.
“The good thing that happened was that I was told, so I wasn’t in a bad situation. So that’s the only thing I can say that was good about the situation is I wasn’t lied to.”
More importantly, perhaps, Ohio State gave its blessing when Martell decided to file a waiver for immediate eligibility to play at Miami, where he enrolled for the spring semester. Once that was granted, most assumed Martell would be a shoo-in to start, and that the next big thing had finally arrived.
But that is not the case, at least not yet. Martell struggled through parts of spring practice, and drew laughs during his first public scrimmage at Miami in early April when he played so poorly, he tripped on the turf and threw a ball into the ground. During the spring game, he was the third quarterback in to take snaps, though he redeemed himself with a solid overall performance that included two touchdown throws and several good runs.
Still, Miami coaches declared the competition would remain open through the offseason, only ramping up the pressure and urgency Martell feels. He is on his second school, with zero career starts to his name.
“This is my move, so I’ve got to make it work however it goes,” Martell said. “There’s pressure on myself to go out there and play well and do what I have to do. At first, it was me feeling like I have to live to a certain expectation, but I have to do what I have to do on each play, and do it at my best.”
That has been a work in progress for all three quarterbacks involved in the competition. N’Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams have been at Miami longer, but nobody has an edge, partly because new offensive coordinator Dan Enos has brought an entirely different offensive scheme to the Hurricanes.
There are more shifts and motions designed to fool a defense, but there are also more options for the quarterback out of just one set.
“We can run one play out of 10 formations and it will look like 10 different plays to the defense,” Williams said. “Basically, there’s always going to be an answer built in the offense, so you really can’t be wrong as long as you’re reading it and doing what you’re coached to do.”
It also is an offense that does not rely exclusively on the shotgun, and that has proved to be a difficult transition for Martell in particular. At 5-foot-11, Martell is shorter than Perry and Williams and has a harder time taking snaps from under center. The last time he did it was his sophomore year in high school. Not coincidentally, he had his best success in the spring game taking shotgun snaps.
Enos has a long track record of success, including last season with Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts at Alabama. Though he had multiple opportunities to leave the Crimson Tide, including several head-coaching job offers, Enos ultimately decided to help new coach Manny Diaz revamp the Miami offense.
The two had never coached together before, but they had coached against each other. As a defensive coordinator, Diaz thought Enos’ offenses were among the most difficult to prepare for.
Enos and Diaz convinced Martell to join the Hurricanes, creating an instant buzz for a program that fell dramatically between 2017 and 2018. Inconsistent quarterback play was among the many culprits, as former coach Mark Richt alternated between Malik Rosier and Perry throughout last season without finding an answer.
With Rosier gone, Diaz reiterated to Perry and Williams they would have a fresh opportunity to compete for the starting job alongside Martell. Diaz became an instant presence around the quarterbacks, sitting in on all their meetings so he, too, could learn what Enos was teaching.
“The one thing about the quarterback: They are holding the matches. They can burn the house down sooner than anybody else,” Diaz said. “Not to oversimplify, but if you don’t make any big mistakes and you know where to go with the ball, were you accurate enough to get it there? If you handle those three things, we’re going to have a chance to succeed in this offense.”
Part of having that chance is knowing how to manage pressure, something Martell in particular is working on as the season gets closer.
“Being a quarterback at a major university, there’s pressure in that to begin with, and then obviously with a lot of the notoriety Tate’s had just from the TV show as a highly recruited guy, with those expectations come people putting pressure on themselves,” Enos said.
“… We’ve just tried to get Tate to focus on getting better and focusing on the things he needs to focus on. A lot of times, guys worry about the wrong things. You worry about what other people think. You worry about what are they saying. You can’t worry about any of that, you’ve got to focus in on getting yourself better and getting your mind on the right things. That’s the message I’ve had to him the entire spring.”
Martell seemed to get that message as spring came to a close. But there is plenty more work to do, especially if Miami wants to make people forget about the disastrous way it closed last season.
“It’s going to be awesome when it all comes together because it makes sense, and there’s always an answer,” Martell said. “You can ask any of the guys, they all believe in it and that’s why everybody’s willing to work. Once everybody’s on the same page, it’s going to be a tough offense to stop. Along with our good defense, it’s going to be something special to watch this year.”