Mizzou football's Martez Manuel assumes captaincy on path of greater learning in hometown

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

Martez Manuel's mind was racing.

The junior safety didn't know why he was being called into Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz's office a few weeks ago.

Manuel initially braced to receive bad news. He saw offensive lineman Case Cook as he walked through the door. Quarterback Connor Bazelak entered shortly after.

That's when it clicked for Manuel, before Drinkwitz confirmed the reason for the meeting: The Columbia native would be one of the Tigers' team captains for the 2021 season.

Two years after first playing for Missouri and a year removed from locking down a starting role on the defense, Manuel received his public declaration as a leader. 

Cook, the only returning team captain from 2020, was a clear choice. Bazelak, the starting quarterback, figured to be in the discussion. Manuel, who has become more outspoken every year, is the lone defensive representative in the captaincy. 

Missouri safety Martez Manuel (3) reacts during a game against South Carolina on Nov. 21 at Williams-Bryce Stadium in Columbia, S.C.

Manuel becomes just the second Columbia native to serve as Missouri's team captain after quarterback Corby Jones, a Hickman graduate, did so in the mid-1990s.

"It's definitely been a goal of mine. It means a lot to me," Manuel said. "I didn't even vote for myself. I was honestly really shocked. ... I was just really honored that my teammates thought that much of me and I just don't want to let them down in any way.

"It has been a big dream of mine, being from here, to get that title. But with that comes a lot of responsibility. And I know I'm not going to be perfect.

"But I look forward to trying to be the best version of myself for the guys."

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Missouri safety Martez Manuel (3) celebrates with teammate Trajan Jeffcoat (18) after sacking Georgia quarterback JT Daniels during a game Dec. 12 at Faurot Field.

Bazelak is the lone Missouri captain who hasn't done it in the city of Columbia before. Cook, alongside Nick Bolton and Larry Rountree, captained the 2020 Tigers, while Manuel was previously named a captain at Rock Bridge. 

During Manuel's senior season as a Bruin, he was a co-captain alongside MU teammate Will Norris, Stanford running back Nate Peat and Minnesota's Jalen-Logan Redding.

Manuel has built a reputation for asking questions to gain deeper understanding.

"Since knowing him, he's definitely had that personality about everything," Peat told the Tribune about Manuel. "He wanted to know everything. He was a leader, he led the defense. Growing up, I've definitely seen that grow on him, and it's definitely his personality to be a leader on the team."

During Manuel's freshman season, he was thrown into the fire of the Southeastern Conference. After an ejection of a teammate, Manuel started against Kentucky. 

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It was evident from that night in Lexington that Manuel had room to grow, but there was time for that to happen with much more experience in front of him on the depth chart. 

As a sophomore, Manuel emerged without the hesitations of 2019 and earned a starting role in the secondary. 

Manuel went from four tackles in 2019 to 64 last year and did so in two fewer games. Add in 2 1/2 sacks, five pass deflections, a forced fumble and seven tackles for loss to complete Manuel's sophomore stat sheet. 

Missouri defensive back Martez Manuel (3) goes through a secondary drill during a Feb. 26 practice at the Kadlec Practice Fields.

"I think for Martez, there is no ceiling," Peat said. "I feel like he is a great player. I think he's definitely going to the league (NFL), and whatever team that picks him up is going to have a great player, for sure."

Manuel's potential to lead at Missouri first came into public focus in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder while in police custody in May 2020. 

Other Tigers cited Manuel as one of the integral members of the team in getting a march from the Columns at the Francis Quadrangle to the Boone County Courthouse in June 2020 to protest racial inequality.

"Before he even initiated it, (Manuel) asked me about it," Peat said of the march. "He was like, 'What are your thoughts? I was definitely for it. I had his back. And I was like, 'Go ahead, you definitely have the platform to do that and definitely take advantage of it.' And he did so and I was very proud of him for doing that and looking out for his city."

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Those inside the Missouri locker room have seen another step into leadership from Manuel in 2021. With linebacker Bolton and fellow safeties Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie now in the NFL, he is tasked with helping the defense through tough times.

Missouri safety Martez Manuel (3) celebrates after a sack against Georgia during a game Dec. 12 at Faurot Field.

"I love to everything that he brings to that defense," Missouri receiver Keke Chism said of Manuel. "He's the leader over there. And with that, I see a guy who's always eager to learn. The biggest, the most impressive thing about Tez, he wants to know everything. 

"I constantly hear about him asking questions, trying to get more details on how to constantly improve. ... Each and every day, you have to go out there and the rent is due. It don't matter what you did yesterday or the day before. Each and every day you step on that field, you have to be able to prove it.

"Tez goes out there with that mindset to be the best version of himself each and every day. And that ultimately makes that whole defense better."

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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