Johnny Martin, star running back for the Highland football team, said the recruiting process is about relationships for him.

“I’m going there for four years. I’m basically living with you. A [head] coach is like another parent, like a father figure,” he said. “So building that relationship and having that relationship, that’s the school I want to go to.”

It’s part of the reason Martin was upset when he learned that Rutgers had fired head coach Chris Ash on Sept. 29.

Rutgers is one of many schools — including Syracuse, West Virginia and Baylor — interested in Martin’s services, and, through that process, Martin and Ash bonded.

Ash was let go by Rutgers after a 1-3 start to the season, finishing his career at Rutgers with an 8-32 record in a little more than three seasons.

While Martin said he wasn’t writing Rutgers off just because of Ash’s departure — “I love Rutgers. This is still my home state,” he said — it does sound as if the Scarlet Knights have some catching up to do.

Martin, here carrying the ball against St. Joseph in August, is among the top running backs in South Jersey for the second straight season.
BEVERLY SCHAEFER/ For the Inquirer
Martin, here carrying the ball against St. Joseph in August, is among the top running backs in South Jersey for the second straight season.

“It’s crazy because [Ash and Martin] were just on the phone that Thursday, and for him to get fired that [Sunday], that was bad news,” said Martin, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior who has been torching opponents this year. He has rushed for 921 yards and 10 touchdowns in five games for the Tartans (4-1).

“I do feel bad for Coach Ash because me and him had a great relationship,” said Martin, who scored 19 touchdowns and was first-team all-South Jersey last year as a sophomore.

Martin, who gained 240 yards on 25 carries in August against St. Joseph, said he’s still narrowing his top schools and thinks he might be ready to announce a top 10 next summer.

He insisted that Rutgers could very well be on that list, “but I just hope the new coaching staff shows me as much love — and can build that same experience — as Coach Ash did,” he said.

Ultimately, Martin said he’s putting a high priority on the bonds he creates during the recruiting process.

“I want to go to the school that’s going to best help me get to the NFL, but I want to know that the coaching staff is really looking at me as a person,” Martin said. “I’m looking for a coaching staff that I feel really cares about me.”

In September 2018, Martin played one of the best games of his career with a heavy heart. He took the field less than 48 hours after the death of his cousin William Henry, a 21-year-old who was shot and killed in Blackwood.

“He was sobbing on the sideline,” Highland coach Brian Leary said at the time. “He’s such a great kid, such a hard worker. You hate to see him go through anything like this. But he showed his character in the way he went out and played tonight. "

Martin carried the ball 37 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns in that 30-20 win over Winslow Township. He also returned a kickoff 65 yards to set up Highland’s first touchdown.

“It motivated me to try to go out and play for my cousin,” Martin said at the time.