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Damien Martinez says he will return to Corvallis next season - FlagSpin

Damien Martinez says he will return to Corvallis next season

Oregon State football coach Jonathan Smith plans to sit down for individual meetings with his players next week, when he no doubt will take their pulse on the future of the program amid the uncertainty of conference realignment.

The conversations will be among the most important, if not the most nerve-racking, of Smith’s six seasons guiding the Beavers.

But there is one thing he does not have to fret about: Damien Martinez.

The star running back, who would be perhaps the Beavers’ most sought-after player if he ever hit the transfer portal, said he plans to stay in Corvallis as the university plots its course forward, serving as a building block for whatever lies ahead.

“I definitely want to come back,” Martinez told The Oregonian/OregonLive last week. “Corvallis just reminds me so much of myself, just being a cool, chill place where I can just focus on football. Football and school, there’s nothing else I really want to do, nothing else I’m looking for. I plan on coming back. I want to be here.”

The No. 15 Beavers (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) travel to Eugene on Friday to face the No. 6 Oregon Ducks (10-1, 7-1) in one of the most anticipated and intriguing meetings in the history of the storied rivalry. But no matter the outcome of the 127th matchup between the schools, Smith already has earned a victory this week with Martinez’s pledge to return.

The 6-foot, 232-pound sophomore is one of the most prolific running backs in college football and a vital piece of the Beavers’ pro-style offense, which lives and dies by the run. Martinez ranks 11th in the nation and second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards (1,147), second in rushing yards per game (104.3), fourth in average yards per carry (6.7) and tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns (10). On Tuesday, he was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker award, given annually to the nation’s top running back.

A quiet, reserved and low-maintenance presence, Martinez has been a stabilizing force for a blue-collar program that won 10 games last season for just the third time in school history and spent multiple weeks this season among The Associated Press top 10. He ended his freshman season by rushing for at least 100 yards in the final six regular-season games, and he has surpassed 100 yards in six of 11 games this season, including a 146-yard, four-touchdown effort against Stanford that tied the school record for touchdowns.

Martinez has the attention of the Ducks heading into this weekend’s marquee matchup — “He’s a special one,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said — but even more, he has the attention of colleges looking to poach talent via the transfer portal.

The football portal officially opens Dec. 4. But don’t think for a second that schools have not already tried to tempt Martinez to transfer through back-door channels, dangling enticing NIL opportunities and the specter of OSU’s conference uncertainty as bait. The death of the Pac-12 has left the Beavers stranded in realignment limbo, and even though NCAA rules prohibit teams from trying to poach players outside the portal, competing colleges have tried to take advantage of OSU’s unsettled future.

“There’s been people after him from the jump,” one source connected to Martinez told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “They’re not supposed to do that, but they do. The last time I talked to him about any of this stuff, when I knew something I thought I should share, he just said, ‘Man, I’m really happy with where I am.’ With everything going on, you couldn’t blame him if he looked to go somewhere else. But he’s a super loyal kid. The people around him matter to him. The relationships he has matter to him. Loyalty matters to him.”

It’s a trait that was instilled into Martinez from an early age in Lewisville, Texas, located just north of Dallas, where he grew up with his younger brother and mother Samantha. It was Samantha who introduced Martinez to football when he was 4 or 5, signing him up to play in a youth flag football league. He immediately gravitated to running back and was a natural, clinging to the position ever since.

“I always tell people, I joke that I haven’t made a tackle since peewee football,” Martinez said, chuckling. “I played safety in middle school, but I was only there for looks.”

By the time he reached high school, Martinez was a scrawny, 180-pound freshman, but showed enough explosiveness and instincts that Lewisville coach Michael Odle saw his potential. Two years later, after Martinez had bulked up to 215 pounds and joined the track team to harness his speed, he blossomed into a star, rushing for 2,010 yards and scoring 31 touchdowns.

That kind of prolific season should have made Martinez a hot commodity on the recruiting circuit, especially considering Lewisville plays in the highest classification of famed Texas high school football. But there was one problem — a global pandemic. COVID temporarily shuttered recruiting and scouting during Martinez’s junior season, the most important scouting year on the recruiting calendar. Scouts, including those at the sought-after colleges in Texas, only had access to old measurables — and old 40-yard dash times — so they mostly ignored Martinez.

“We knew he was special,” Odle said. “We knew he was gifted. He could do it all. He was explosive, caught the ball really well out of the backfield, was really good in pass (protection) and just electric with the ball. But he didn’t have the speed numbers early in his career that (recruiters) were looking for and that sent a lot of people away. Since he has left and gone on to have success, when people come back to recruit our kids, they always ask me: ‘How did we miss him?’ I’m like, ‘Coach, I told you.’ And they always say, ‘You’re right. You did.’ They’re upset they let him go.”

Odle said a smattering of schools, including Kansas, Georgia Tech, Oregon State and San Diego State, showed varying degrees of interest despite those old 40 times. But in the end, Martinez said, he felt a connection to Smith and former OSU running backs coach A.J. Steward, Martinez’s primary recruiter, and fell in love with the laid-back vibe in Corvallis.

He committed to Oregon State, then had another standout season as a senior, rushing for 1,712 yards and 26 touchdowns, carrying Lewisville deep into the playoffs. His senior year was nearly derailed in the season finale, however, when Martinez suffered a broken bone in his right hand. Afterward, Odle mentally said goodbye to Martinez, deciding it was time to start crafting a game plan for the playoffs without his star player.

But Martinez wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

After checking with doctors and clearing things with Steward and the Beavers, Martinez decided he would play wearing a cast, relying on his left arm to carry the ball. He didn’t practice all week and Odle had no idea how he was going to use Martinez, but they agreed to see how things went.

At one point in the first half, Lewisville drove into the red zone. Odle turned to Martinez along the sideline and quietly said to himself: “If there was ever a time to put him in, it’s now.” Wearing a maroon cast that resembled a club — it stretched from his elbow all the way down over his fingers — Martinez raced into the game and, on his first carry, scored a touchdown. He went on to score three more, including a receiving touchdown, then added 239 rushing yards and three more touchdowns a week later, cementing his place in Lewisville lore.

“You couldn’t have scripted things any better,” Odle said. “He was just the ultimate competitor.”

Martinez graduated from Lewisville early and enrolled at Oregon State in time for spring practice, which he hoped would expedite his adjustment to college and enhance his chances of playing as a freshman.

He quickly impressed OSU coaches with his work ethic, no-nonsense approach and maturity, and his vision and instincts in the Beavers’ zone-heavy rushing scheme — in addition to his pass-blocking ability — were advanced for a freshman. Martinez was in the running back rotation to start the season and eventually grew into a force, scoring his first touchdown in his third game, breaking out with an 83-yard, one-touchdown performance in his sixth game, and recording his first 100-yard outing in his seventh game.

He hasn’t looked back, amassing 2,129 yards and 16 touchdowns in 24 games.

Martinez is the latest in a long lineage of talented Oregon State running backs that includes the likes of Ken Simonton, Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard, Jacquizz Rodgers and, most recently, Jermar Jefferson. Martinez was already well aware of Jackson’s exploits — he is the first student-athlete brand ambassador for Jackson’s OBS Lifestyle Brand — but has learned more about the other greats in recent weeks after digging in to the OSU record books.

“I’m not going to lie, I have been getting more into it recently,” Martinez told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “I’ve been looking at all the records and stuff as I get up there in the top 10 in rushing leaders. I want to break those records and be looked at as one of those greats.”

Records or not, Smith said, Martinez already belongs in the company of OSU’s greats.

“He’s in that conversation with those type of backs,” Smith said after Martinez’s record-setting performance against Stanford. “This guy’s been here, making big-time plays, and he rose to the occasion.”

That said, Longevity is often connected with greatness, and that leads back to Martinez’s future in Corvallis.

He says he feels a “comfortability” in Corvallis and loves playing for Smith, whose demeanor and coaching style remind him of Odle.

In a sport filled with testosterone and trash-talking, Martinez is an antithesis. Quiet and measured, he is more likely to spend a night playing video games with his best friend and housemate, fellow running back Deshaun Fenwick, than savoring the college night life. The lifestyle in Corvallis and the “hard-working, blue-collar” vibe of the football program suit Martinez, he said, allowing him to focus on football and chase his NFL dreams.

He said he knows Oregon State fans are anxious — they DM him regularly on social media, begging him to stay — but there’s no need for the anxiety. The Beavers were there in high school when no other college was, and that means something, even in a changing college football landscape that includes NIL, the transfer portal and conference realignment.

Martinez is one less thing Smith has to worry about.

“I’m not thinking about leaving,” Martinez told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “It’s definitely a loyalty thing. Like I said, Oregon State talked to me the most when I was coming out of high school. They showed me love the whole time. So I want to show love back.”

Joe Freeman | | 503-294-5183 | @BlazerFreeman | Subscribe to The Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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