MUSKEGON – Cameron Martinez has played in quite a few big games during his football career, but nothing compares to the battle he’s preparing for this weekend.
The former Muskegon Big Red standout took his talents to Columbus, Ohio, after graduating from high school and has become an important part of the defensive backfield for the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes this season.
Martinez now prepares for a game he vividly remembers as a young football fan years ago in Muskegon, as No. 2 Ohio State (11-0) plays host to No. 3 Michigan (11-0) at noon Saturday in a Big Ten matchup and implications for national championships.
“These games are why you come here,” Martinez told MLive. “You want to play in these kinds of games and this kind of atmosphere. It is the last game of the regular season between two undefeated teams with a lot to play for. It’s the game the whole country wants to see, so I’m excited about the vibe of that game. I’m just doing everything I can in training this week to prepare for the game, so when I go out I’m as prepared as possible to play the best game I can.
The redshirt sophomore has seen both sides of the rivalry between his time at Michigan and his three years at Ohio and has grown to relish the chance to play in such a heated rivalry.
“I definitely appreciate the rivalry more now that I’m involved,” he said. “I got to watch all those games grow up and now you fast-forward to the present and get ready to play in the actual game. It’s a bit surreal, but it’s something I’m going to enjoy every second of this weekend.
“Just being able to say you played in front of a packed house at the (Horse) Shoe against Michigan when both teams were undefeated is something not many people experience, so I don’t take this for granted. I’m locked up in practice all week because I know if I get a chance I have to make it count.
Martinez has adapted well to freshman defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ new defensive plan, as he has spent most of his defensive snaps as a slot cornerback after switching between safety and corner in previous years.
“I would say it’s a very big difference,” Martinez said of the defensive coaching staff changes. “Coach Knowles is just a guy who knows the game really well and he’s also a really good play-caller. He really invested in us and this program. He’s the type of person that makes you want to go out and fight for him. My position coach, Coach (Perry) Eliano, is the same way. Those guys really helped me take my game to the next level and I give them a lot of credit.”
The two-time MLive Player of the Year for the Big Reds had to overcome an early setback when he arrived on campus in Columbus, when a global pandemic forced him into a completely different college experience than what he originally applied for.
“The first year was tough because I got COVID quite early in my freshman year, so I was out for a while because of that and as the season progressed I also had to deal with an injury,” recalled Martinez. “I also didn’t really get the chance to get to know my teammates because everything was so spread out and everyone was isolated.
“In my second year everything was more or less back to normal and I started hanging out with my teammates and really getting to know people and interacting with people I play with now. I would say that now in my third year here I feel comfortable and used to all the things that happen.”
Martinez has logged a total of 15 tackles so far this season as a redshirt sophomore. As a redshirt freshman, the four-star playmaker recorded a pick-6 against Tulsa and also had five tackles in his team’s victory over Utah in the 2021 Rose Bowl.
The adjustment from high school football to the collegiate game can often be a steep one, but Martinez believes his time with Muskegon has served him well in preparing for the jump.
“The speed of the game at the college level is much higher and you are fighting some of the best athletes in the country and a lot of guys who were top players out of high school,” added Martinez. “You should always bring your A-game every day during training here, especially when going against our attack. If you practice well all week, you go into the game with more confidence, so you have to give your best every day here.”
The Buckeyes boast a loaded roster on offense, including standout wide receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Martinez has been baptized by fire against a cast of potential first round selections in future NFL drafts and it has helped him become a reliable defender for the Ohio State defense this season.
“Jaxon is probably the hardest to guard,” Martinez admitted. “I’ve been up against him since I’ve been here. I’d say he’s by far the best person I’ve worked against since I’ve been here. He’s just a different type of athlete and he just knows how to open. There are a lot things you can try as a defensive back to unsettle him, but he’s always able to create separation and open up or make a tough catch. He’s just kidding.”
Before his time as a locked defenseman, Martinez lit up the opposing defense as the starting quarterback for the Big Reds. The dual-threat playmaker finished his prep career with 6,954 rushing yards, including 2,124 as a senior with 47 total touchdowns.
Martinez posted a 26-2 record as a starting quarterback at the high school level and has used that knowledge to his advantage as a defensive back in college.
“It definitely slowed down a lot of things for me because I can kind of see how a quarterback thinks,” Martinez said. “I feel like it’s definitely been an advantage for me now as a defensive defender because I can anticipate how he will react to certain coverings and that gives me the opportunity to create turnover.”
Martinez has had a chance to watch his cousin, M’Khi Guy, become the Big Reds’ starting quarterback this season as the junior playmaker led his squad to the Division 3 state championship game against Detroit’s Martin Luther King on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. hours from Ford Field.
The former Big Red is hoping to celebrate a few wins for both his family back home and his Buckeye brethren in Ohio on Saturday night.
“He’s definitely carrying on that legacy and he’s doing it in his own way too,” Martinez said of Guy. “He’s a really good leader and he’s having a really good season. You can never count him out no matter what the score is or what the situation is. I think he’s always someone who has overcome those obstacles and I give him a lot of credit for that. I know he’s going to shine on Saturday night.
“I contacted him after his game last weekend and just congratulated him. We talked in the week leading up to his game and I’m going to try and catch their game on Saturday night and cheer them on as well.
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