Leistikow: Oliver Martin's media-day presence represents Iowa football's 2019 hope — and beyond
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A young man who might not play his first snap of Iowa football until the fall of 2020 was one of the premier attractions Friday at the Hawkeyes’ annual media day.
Whatever happens with the Oliver Martin eligibility-waiver petition probably won’t make or break the Hawkeyes’ season. But his story nonetheless is a fascinating one and carries much symbolism about this Iowa team.
There's excitement about Martin, the former Iowa City West star and top 50 recruit, according to 247Sports. Bringing a wide receiver onto campus that was running atop the depth chart just a few months ago at Michigan is a big deal.
And there’s excitement about what this offense can do, not only in 2019 and going forward. Martin’s presence on media day represented that, too.
To see Martin, a chiseled 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, happily donning a No. 5 Hawkeye uniform is positive imagery for Iowa football. This hardly feels like a stale program in Year 21 under Kirk Ferentz; it's one that is attractive to players even from a more storied Big Ten school.
“It feels like a good fit being back,” Martin said as he stood in front of countless reporters wanting to hear his side of the transfer story. “Overall, I’m very happy being here. I think it’s a good thing to be here.”
Martin was careful with his words and politely declined his rationale for leaving Michigan, while possibly losing a year of college eligibility in the process.
“I appreciate your interest on the topic,” he said, “but I just don’t really want to go into the details.”
In fact, he went out of his way to fondly speak of his days at Michigan. This was hardly the sound of a young man who hated his experience under Jim Harbaugh; it sounded like a guy who needed a fresh start.
When he told Michigan coaches he wanted to transfer, they implored him to stay.
“That made the decision even harder for me; talking to the coaches and having them express how they feel about me and how they envisioned me fitting into the offense over the rest of my career there,” he said. “… But at the end of the day, I thought this was where I’d best fit. And that’s why I came here.
“I’m thankful that I went to Michigan. I had a lot of great experiences there,” Martin continued. “I have a lot of great friends that I’ve made there; lifelong friends.”
So about his waiver-petition with the NCAA for immediate eligibility …
Ferentz revealed that the paperwork wasn’t even filed until recently (“within the last two weeks,” he said), so the NCAA is hardly dragging its feet on the matter. The UI’s compliance office was slow to put this together; the Martin family has an attorney, too, which added an extra layer to the process.
But while he didn't provide details of his case, Martin seemed confident about it as he tried to remain patient.
“Every once in a while, I (wish) I would have had a decision made by now,” he said. “I think everything on our end was done correctly and as best we could; so I’m happy with that.”
All this talk about immediate eligibility … but could a guy that's been here only two months be able to provide an instant impact?
The coaches say, yes, absolutely.
Martin has been learning all three wide-receiver positions in a crash course to get ready for the season, in case he’s ruled eligible. He said he’s getting the most reps at the “Z” position — the same one that Ihmir Smith-Marsette plays. (Brandon Smith is No. 1 at the “X,” and Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. are the top slot receivers.)
He’s a smart kid; one who started a game and caught 11 balls for Michigan as a redshirt freshman a year ago. Even if he’s not 100% acclimated for the Aug. 31 opener against Miami of Ohio — he certainly would improve his comfort level as the season goes on.
But with three weeks until the opener, the clock is ticking. And that creates a brewing dilemma for Iowa’s coaches. Pretty soon, they’ll have to streamline the practice reps for guys that are definitely playing in Week 1. That’s why, for everyone involved, a swift NCAA decision would be helpful either way.
“How do you balance that?" offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz asked. "You have to get him ready to play football. You have to get him up to speed and get him ready to go with us to the best of his ability, to the best of our ability, without sacrificing reps for guys that we know are going to play.”
Martin said he’s made a few big plays in practice so far and that he’s been met with open arms. It helped that a pair of high-school teammates, Dillon Doyle and John Milani, were here to begin the transition. He made an instant connection with Ragaini, too.
He's been an excellent culture fit. He works hard, studies the playbook. He sure seems like an easy guy to root for.
Meantime, we wait.
“He's earned their respect; he's doing a good job. And if he can get eligibility, I certainly think he'll help our football team this year,” Kirk Ferentz said. “If he doesn't, then we'll bank this year, use it as a learning year and look forward to having him (play) next season."
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.