STARKVILLE — John Hevesy wanted to get ahead of this.
It was in the spring and summer of 2017 when Hevesy, at the time Mississippi State’s offensive line coach, was made aware that his left tackle Martinas Rankin was viewed as one of the top NFL Draft prospects at his position. Hevesy, never the fan of outside influences, wanted to make sure the buzz wouldn’t get to Rankin’s head and impact his preparation for the upcoming season.
Rankin didn’t need the message. He’d never had a buzz about his football career and didn’t see the point in getting wrapped up in one now.
There is now nothing bur fervor around Rankin, who will participate in MSU’s Pro Day Wednesday morning after going to the NFL Combine in February. NFL.com’s Mike Mayock has Rankin rated as the tied for fifth best tackle prospect in the draft; CBS Sports has him eighth. It’s both proof of how far he has come and how much more he has to prove, a process that continues on Pro Day before the NFL Draft April 26-28.
“Honestly, Coach did make sure I didn’t focus on it, but even before he came to me it was something I took pride in myself in not focusing on,” Rankin said as he was preparing for MSU’s TaxSlayer Bowl win over Louisville. “Anything can change: if you focus on that and forget what got you to that point, and that’s just working, you can lose it all. My main focus the whole time was to get better each day; I see the buzz, but you can’t worry about the buzz.”
Rankin has always had something to prove. It goes all the way back to high school, where Rankin had to impress college coaches there to see someone else.
Chad Huff was about to transition from assistant coach to head coach for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College when he was recruiting Mendenhall High School, but he wasn’t there to see Rankin: he was there for Rankin’s classmate, quarterback Khadarel Hodge, as they were in spring practice before their senior season. The timing was rough for Rankin, who had suffered a knee injury during basketball season and he was down 20 to 30 pounds. Huff had a conversation with him, knowing he had a long way to go but saw some potential in a tall, long and well-behaved player.
Each return visit showed more and more potential.
“I’d go to see the quarterback and there Martinas was. I’d see him and he’d keep growing, he’d gained some weight,” Huff told The Dispatch. “Another three or four months go by, I go back out there to see the quarterback, it’s about a month before the signing date and Martinas comes walking up with the quarterback and I say, ‘Dang, Martinas, what have you been doing?'”
Upon seeing Rankin then, Huff wanted to get him on a scale; 260 pounds, a full 35 or 40 pounds more than what when Huff first saw him the preceding spring. Huff called back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast staff and made his pitch; they offered and Rankin was theirs.
“Martinas took care of the rest,” Huff said. “He didn’t have anything else but Gulf Coast, but he went to work, had a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.”
Rankin took that lone shot at college football and turned it into a full-time starting job as a freshman that could have been so much more. This is where, as Huff put it, “the story gets even better.”
Rankin’s freshman season was so impressive, and his academic record so strong, he was getting attention from Power 5 conference schools after his freshman season; Huff remembers Missouri offering him with MSU and others following. Countless others in Rankin’s situation have struck while the iron was hot and taken their opportunity at the highest level of college football, but he stayed.
Huff said he saw in Rankin a player who was staying true to himself and wanted to win a championship with the team he dedicated himself to. That extra year was worth it: Mississippi Gulf Coast won the Mississippi Association of Community & Junior Colleges (MACJC) South championship and garnered even more attention for Rankin; MSU had a new list of competitors for Rankin’s services that included Oklahoma and Florida.
The hard work didn’t stop when Rankin got to MSU. It took a redshirt year and three games into the ensuing 2016 season for Rankin to get the starting left tackle job that made him a notable draft prospect. He was well on his way to boosting that status in his senior season — until the first half of the Auburn game. Five games into his senior season, Rankin was downed with an ankle injury; it forced MSU to throw a freshman in his spot and made Rankin question if he would have another opportunity.
“When it first happened, I was hurt; I almost shed a few tears,” Rankin said. “I decided it’s not about what happens, it’s about how you respond. My role was going to change while I was down, but I had to stay positive.”
For the four games that followed, MSU had nothing but newcomers at tackle — Greg Eiland starting on the left, Stewart Reese on the right and East Mississippi Community College transfer Tyre Phillips behind them — and Rankin took it on himself to help them through while rehabilitating to give one of them relief.
“Anytime I was around Greg or Stewart, staying positive was part of my role. Watching film to help them adjust to different looks or just a positive word of encouragement,” Rankin said. “I definitely felt that way because I always look at those guys as young stars. I feel like those guys have bright futures and that includes Tyre; those guys have special talents and I feel like in whatever way I could help them, they are the future and I have to build the bridge for them.”
Former MSU assistant coach and interim head coach Greg Knox saw the impact of Rankin’s help as MSU was preparing for the TaxSlayer Bowl: “I didn’t want him to be injured, but when he was injured, that put Stewart and Greg in a situation where they got a lot of reps this year. For the future, that’s bright, because you have two young kids at the tackle position that played a lot of reps. The sky’s the limit for those two from here on out.”
Now the same can be said for Rankin. On Wednesday, it’s possible Rankin has the eyes of at last half of the NFL’s teams on him, scouting him to play one of football’s most lucrative positions — a long haul from the kid too small to play community college football.
“Coming out of high school he was a guy under the radar, a guy under the rocks. He went to work and now has a chance to be one of the first tackles taken,” Huff said. “He’s a tremendous young man.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson