Leistikow: Oliver Martin off to 'great' start at Iowa as waiver process gets underway

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa football coaches have been historically reticent to say much publicly about young players who have yet to make their Hawkeye mark.

And that’s understandable, given the culture the program tries to promote: That success and playing time are earned, not promised.

The case of Oliver Martin, though, is similar, but slightly different. The Iowa City native who recently joined the program after two years at Michigan — where he was a contributor and started a game last fall as a redshirt freshman — is a proven Big Ten Conference wide receiver.

Iowa football and Oliver Martin are now in the waiting process to determine whether he'll receive an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility.

And the Hawkeyes are openly excited about it. Now, as the full 2019 roster worked out together for the first time this week, coaches are trying to assess what they’ve actually got in Martin.

In the meantime, Iowa is in the process of seeking immediate eligibility for Martin by filing an application with the NCAA. Because Martin’s previous school changed coordinators, is transitioning to a spread offense and because he's moved close to home, there are several factors that seem to be in his favor.

If he's denied, that's the end of the process. Martin wouldn't have eligibility until 2020.

If he's approved (and I'll estimate there's a 30% chance of that), there's still another hurdle to clear in the process. Because he's transferring within the conference, the Big Ten would also have to approve Martin's 2019 eligibility.

That'd be quite the kick in the football pants if the NCAA says yes but the Big Ten says no.

There isn't a known timetable. So for now, we wait.

And for now, Iowa and Martin plow ahead together. 

"You can’t plan one way or another, so right now we’re just getting him prepared the best we can,” Iowa third-year wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland told us on our Hawk Central radio show Wednesday night. “If he’s eligible, great. Then he’s going to help contribute and add depth to room and create competition. If not, then he’s going to help us in other ways.

"Either way, he’s going to contribute. He’s going to help the program."

There's a real possibility that Martin, a former four-star prospect with excellent hands and speed who was coveted by many of the nation’s top programs, could be on Iowa's scout team this fall. 

So as you would expect, Iowa is handling Martin (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) much like an incoming freshman — even though at 20 years and 7 months, he's older than every Iowa scholarship receiver except fellow redshirt sophomore Henry Marchese.

"He’s not going to learn everything in one day. No kid can," Copeland said. "When I got here as a coach, it took me a full year, honestly, to learn all the ins and outs of Iowa football.

"It’s going to take a little while."

Copeland was still at Northern Illinois when Martin jumped into a pool with Jim Harbaugh in committing to Michigan. He joined the Hawkeyes' staff a few weeks later.

It’s no mystery why Martin left the state then; Iowa had fired its wide receivers coach and was coming off a pitiful passing season in Greg Davis' final days as offensive coordinator.

But he’s all-in with the Hawkeyes now.

So far, so good.

“You just want them to understand that our place is different; we do things different. We are a developmental program, and we take pride in that fact,” Copeland said. “… We’re going to walk you through certain things, but we’re also going to push you hard. And we’re going to hold you accountable.

“He’s done a great job up to this point.”

It also bears mentioning that Martin is one of three redshirt sophomore transfers who arrived via the NCAA transfer portal. Jack Combs (6-1, 188), previously of Central Michigan, and Charlie Jones (6-0, 190), previously of Buffalo, are new Hawkeye walk-ons.

The acquisition of Jones is particularly intriguing. While at Northern Illinois, Copeland initially tried to recruit the native of Chicago suburb Deerfield. But Jones instead went to another Mid-American Conference school. Now, after catching 18 passes for a remarkable 21.9 yards per reception as a redshirt freshman, he's back in the Midwest.

For all the attention Martin has received, don’t sleep on Jones. 

“When he entered the transfer portal, he remembered me,” Copeland said. “He somewhat (sought) me out. … Things worked out, and here it is.”

Charlie Jones (17) made 18 catches for 395 yards and also averaged 19.3 yards on kickoff returns as a Buffalo freshman. He arrived at Iowa this month as a walk-on sophomore and likely will have to sit out a year.

Combs and Jones join nine scholarship receivers at an increasingly crowded, increasingly competitive position.

Two years ago, there were figurative tumbleweeds rolling through Iowa's wide receiver room. Today, there's tangible buzz.

Returning juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have been joined by fast-rising freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. They’re the clear top four heading into fall camp, Copeland said.

I’m so bullish on slot-receiver Ragaini (6-0, 192) that I've gone on record predicting he will lead the 2019 Hawkeyes in receptions.

"I don’t know what he runs the 40, and I really don’t care. But the guy just plays fast," Copeland said. “When you’ve got a guy that is playing fast with a high motor and has a high football IQ, then you just happen to be productive. That’s not a bad guess at all."

Just like with Martin, it's cool to be excited about everything happening with Iowa's wide receivers. But now we wait — for the NCAA (and maybe the Big Ten) on Martin's waiver, and for the Aug. 31 season opener vs. Miami of Ohio — to see what happens next.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.