POCATELLO – At his home in Texas, J.D. Martinez got word one of his shining stars from a few years back was doing the usual a few states north.
He pulled out his phone and watched Benji Omayebu slip through a crease like water and bolt into the end zone for a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown. It was the highlight in what became another frustrating loss for Idaho State: a 23-21 defeat to Sacramento State. Heck, it may be the highlight of the Bengals’ 0-3 start so far.
But it was just deja vu to Martinez, who coached Omayebu for four years at Sherman High in North Texas. Martinez saw the clip and started laughing. Then he showed his wife, Cyndi.
“He just makes it look so easy,” she said.
“Yep,” Martinez replied, “that’s what Benji does. He makes these spectacular plays look easy.”
Omayebu came into this season as an afterthought. He was a true freshman who didn’t have the luxury of playing in the spring season. All the talk this fall was that the Bengals had a wide receiver crop with five starting-caliber wide-outs. It now seems they have six.
Even before Tyler Vander Waal left the game with a shoulder injury – thrusting freshman Hunter Hays under center for the second straight week – the Bengals offense was sputtering. Vander Waal was 1 for 7 passing.
The rushing attack was hardly averaging 3 yards a pop. And getting a first down felt like scaling Kilimanjaro.
Sacramento State got on the board first over 14 minutes into the game. The Hornets had a 7-0 lead that felt like it was a six-score blowout against a struggling Idaho State offense.
Then Omayebu caught the kickoff on the 1-yard line and evened the game without needing a miracle from the Idaho State offense.
“We could tell he had some explosion to him,” Idaho State coach Rob Phenicie said. “He can play running back. He can play receiver. He can play slot. And obviously, he can return kicks.”
Martinez has been afforded the luxury Phenicie is describing. When game planning at Sherman, the longtime high school football coach spent countless hours devising new ways to get his playmaker the ball.
“We just needed to get the ball in Benji’s hands as much as possible. In space, it’s fantastic but he’s so strong that we knew we could put him in the backfield, too,” Martinez said. “We were just trying to take advantage of his unique abilities. His strength, speed, vision and just game sense.”
There was one time in high school Omayebu caught a screen pass and followed his escort. He put his hand on his lineman’s back and used the big man as a human shield, hiding behind it as danger got closer.
Another time, in a game against West Mesquite his junior season, Martinez called a play he dubbed “26 Psycho.” It’s a reverse that’s pitched back to Omayebu and in the week leading up to it, the Sherman O-line coach told Martinez he didn’t think it would work. They ran it anyway.
“Sure enough, it scored from about 45 yards out,” Martinez said with a chuckle. “(Benji) ends up going to the left but, somehow, he ends up back on the right side because he meanders his way through the West Mesquite defense.”
Stuff like that, Martinez said, can’t be taught.
Idaho State is already reaping the benefits. On Saturday, the freshman caught his first collegiate pass. Vander Waal unleashed a 29-yard laser to the 5-foot-10 receiver over the middle of the field for the Bengals’ second touchdown of the day.
Omayebu entered Saturday having touched the ball just one time – a 39-yard run on a reverse against Nevada. Then he came out and scored Idaho State’s first two touchdowns of Big Sky play. He ran the ball a few times. He caught three passes for almost 40 yards. If you’re looking for hope after another loss, Omayebu is a good starting point.
“He’s going to be a little bit in the backfield, a little bit in the slot,” Phenicie said. “Obviously we’re going to use someone with his skill set.”
And right now, Phenicie will consider all his options.
Backup or not, it’s pretty tough to win a Big Sky game with only 146 yards passing. The Idaho State offense was dreadful on Saturday. The Bengals’ coach knows that. And he sat fuming in front of a computer screen on Saturday, he vowed there will be change.
“One hundred and forty-six yards is not good enough,” Phenicie said. “I’m an offensive guy. I know the passing game. I’m going to get this fixed.”