When J.D. Martinez was named head football coach at Sherman, he had no idea what to expect from running back Nathaniel Omayebu.
Two seasons later, the senior has cemented himself as the centerpiece of the Bearcats offense. In 28 career games entering the 119th Battle of the Ax, Omayebu has accounted for 3,024 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns. And he's not done yet.
Omayebu enters the final regular-season game of 2017 with 1,175 yards and 17 touchdowns. With the Bearcats already qualified for the Class 5A Division I playoffs, he's guaranteed at least one more game.
“I just feel like we're connecting more as a team this year,” Omayebu said. “We connected as a team last year, but we were still getting into the mix of things. We were still trying to get used to it. But now that we're already there, everything's clicking, we're just making that bond little bit better.
“I feel were more of a family now moreso than last year. Even last year we were a family, but we're growing closer together. I feel like that's helped in our game, week in and week out.”
Getting to that point, Martinez said, took a lot of work. As a sophomore in 2015, Omayebu rushed for 342 yards and five touchdowns in limited action, but was still something of an unknown commodity to the new coach.
“When we first got here, I didn't know any of the kids from Adam and they didn't know me, either,” Martinez said. “Some of the seniors came up and talked to me, the senior linemen, but Nate kind of kept to himself. He didn't really say anything. He just worked.
“At the time, it was in the spring and some of the college recruiters would come through. They were like, 'who's that guy?' And I hadn't seen him run the ball yet. I hadn't seen anything of him. The coaches that we're here, they were kind, 'eh, he's OK.' They talked about his mental toughness. He'd gotten injured and never really came back from his ankle injury.
“I hadn't seen the kid. I didn't know anything about him. I hadn't seen him run or anything along those lines, but he worked hard. We started doing competitions and he was doing well in competitions. He was a big, ol', strong kid, but I didn't know if he could run for anything.”
Omayebu showed flashes in the first two games of 2016, rushing for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Sulphur Springs and a single-game school-record 312 yards and three touchdowns the next week against Frisco Liberty. Of the six scores, five were for more than 50 yards, but Martinez still had some concerns.
“The fist play of the second half (against Sulphur Springs), we ran 15 power read, and Nate goes around the edge, untouched,” Martinez said. “The safety comes down on him and Nate didn't really do anything to not be tackled, just kind of gave himself up. And he did it a couple of times. We had a one-on-one and I talked to the running backs coaches and told them this isn't going to work. If a guy like that is tackling him, that's not good.”
Omayebu took the lessons to heart, which showed when he rushed for 252 yards and three touchdowns, including his career long of 90 yards, in the 2016 District 5-5A opener against Wichita Falls Rider.
“It just kind of kept going on,” Martinez said. “He got better and better until the Rider game. He ran with so much authority and being vicious.
“I think he just had to figure out who he was and that he could run viciously. He ran with passion, but he wasn't running with conviction. He wasn't running with power. He wasn't running like beast mode. He wasn't like that at all. But he started changing that mindset to where, 'I am 6-foot, 225 and I am pretty fast and I'm really strong.'”
Omayebu capped his junior season with a 190-yard, three-touchdown performance against Denison as Sherman entered the game battling for a playoff berth. He finished the season with 1,507 yards and 17 touchdowns.
After getting off to a slow start this season, Omayebu has picked up the pace with five 100-yard games with back-to-back 200-yard performances in the first two district games against Rider and Denton High. Where more than a third of his 2016 total came at the start of the season, most of his yards and touchdowns this year have been in district play.
“As long as we win, honestly, (the yards don't matter),” Omayebu said. “I'm just trying to win. Whatever it takes to win.
“I had a goal last year to get over 1,000 yards and I had the same goal this year. If I got over 1,000, then it's to beat my last year's rushing total. I got over 1,000 yards this year and we still have more games to come, hopefully a lot more in the postseason, so I should get it.”
One constant over the last two seasons has been Omayebu's performance in big games, notably against Rider and Denton this season. He's looking for another big outing in the Battle of the Ax.
“Before those last two touchdowns (against Denton), I got on the headset with (offensive coordinator Derek) Thompson and he told me plain and simple. He said, 'you're going to finish this for us. We're giving you the ball every play.' That got me in that mindset that it's now ever. The guys blocking up front and finishing as a team, it was a good team win, especially on the defensive side. They played outstanding and that helped us out a lot on offense.
“The Rider game, even though we came up short, we had some success. We could have had a lot more success except for turnovers. It's a game we wish we could have back, but we did some good things offensively and defensively. We're just proud of where we're at right now. We gave ourselves a chance to go to the playoffs. That hasn't happened here in a long time. We're just glad that we're be able to be a part of that.”