John Martinez won't be sporting one of those drum and feather-clad Ute helmets when he runs into Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night.
But even decked out in USC cardinal and gold, the offensive guard will feel very much at home on Utah's turf.
"I don't even know how many times I've stepped foot in Rice-Eccles Stadium," said Martinez, a redshirt junior who graduated from Cottonwood High in 2009. The shy but affable 21-year-old even played in the stadium as a senior when the Colts lost to Timpview in the 4A state championship game.
"It will be like a reunion," said Martinez, who has traded tickets with his USC teammates for the last couple of years so his family and friends can all attend Thursday's sold-out contest between the No. 13-ranked Trojans and the struggling Utes.
"I was hoping we would go head-to-head undefeated," said Martinez, echoing the sentiments of coaches and fans in both programs. "But it will still be a great game."
With the Trojans, a preseason top-ranked team, losing to Stanford, and with Utah losing to Utah State and Arizona State, the matchup lost a lot of its national luster. But those losses don't diminish in the slightest the importance of this contest to Martinez, who has multiple cousins (named Kaufusi) who've played at Utah and a number of friends on the Ute roster.
"If you mess up on a play in this game, you're going to hear about it the rest of the season," he said with a laugh.
Martinez said he also feels like he has something to prove. The Utah football team has 37 players from California on its roster, while USC has had just three players from Utah — ever.
Highly sought after in high school, he chose USC on the eve of the Under Armour All-American Football Game, which he played in for the West. He said he loved Los Angeles, loved the school atmosphere and forged a significant bond with the man who would be his position coach — Pat Ruel.
Martinez was just 17 when he graduated from high school, so he chose to redshirt his freshman year. Immediately after that season, head coach Pete Carroll announced (in January) that he was taking over the Seattle Seahawks. And while that was a blow to the USC program, which was dealing with an NCAA investigation at the time regarding running back Reggie Bush, the situation became more personal for Martinez when Ruel decided to follow Carroll to Seattle.
"It was Pete Carroll and Pat Ruel who made promises to my wife about how, 'We'll make sure John is taken care of,' " said John's father, Steve Martinez. "After a year and a half of getting letters and cards saying, 'Hi, we love you,' now you're playing for a guy who hasn't sent you anything."
Then came another blow when the NCAA punished USC for violations involving Bush that included a loss of scholarships, which affects recruiting, and a two-year postseason ban.
While Steve Martinez wondered if his son might not be better off transferring amid all the turnover, John Martinez never wavered.
"Everybody was telling us, 'You guys do what you want ... You have the freedom to leave,' " said John Martinez. "There was every story, every possible situation. But we just decided to stay and wait it out."
He understood why some of the seniors transferred, but most of the guys just kept working and trying to win football games, he said.
"It wasn't that hard for me," Martinez said. "I just came to play football. I didn't really expect to care that much about USC, but I love it here. My favorite thing is definitely the guys I play with. We've been together since my freshman year, and we obviously have a good team. We have great walk-ons and guys willing to step up and play when someone else is hurt."
Staying at USC has paid off. It's Martinez's second year starting and his coaches say they love the great progress he has made.
"John's just a great kid," said offensive line coach James Cregg. "He's a hard worker. He's tough; he's physical; he just shows up and works hard. The one thing John will give you is 100 percent every day. We are really pleased with his development as a player."
The Trojans lost starting center Khaled Holmes and used freshman Cyrus Hobbi against Stanford. Injuries have forced some shuffling and there have been questions about their chemistry, but Martinez said the line is feeling confident and healthy heading into Salt Lake City.
Martinez said he's talked to his teammates about how physical and tough Utah's defense is — starting with senior tackle Star Lotulelei — whom he's only watched or seen off the field.
"I'm definitely looking forward to playing the whole D-line," said Martinez, who admits he feels like he has a little to prove in his hometown return. "We definitely have high expectations going into this game. They're physical; they run downhill on guys; they blitz … It's going to be a big man's game for us and Utah."
Martinez said he doesn't shy away from the challenge that Utah's defensive line will offer.
"I love competition," he said. "That's the reason I came to USC."
Martinez said the Trojans are hungry to reach a top-level bowl game after being banned from postseason play for two years.
"We're going to be so hungry for any challenge," he said. "We've just been waiting our turn."
Utes on the air
Utah (2-2, 0-1) vs. USC (3-1, 1-1)
Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV: ESPN Radio: 700 AM
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company