The trajectory of Martez Manuel’s freshman season on the Missouri football team changed in an instant.

The Rock Bridge graduate has long been trained to be ready at all times. He has been lauded as an integral future part of the Missouri secondary. But hypotheticals turned into reality last Saturday with the untimely ejection of teammate Tyree Gillespie against Vanderbilt.

With Gillespie forced to sit out the first half of the Tigers' game at Kentucky on Saturday, Manuel is slated to be the first true freshman to start for Missouri this season.

This certainly is not the ideal circumstance to get an opportunity under the Southeastern Conference spotlight, but Manuel knows being thrown into the fire in his seventh collegiate game is a dream for countless kids, just like he was not too long ago.

“It’s just football at the end of the day,” Manuel said. “Just like high school, just like pee wee, it’s just ball. All I got to do is keep doing what I’ve been doing my whole life."

Manuel’s debut in the starting lineup for Missouri comes at an apex for the team. Vanderbilt shocked the Tigers seven days ago to derail most of the momentum they had built up during an undefeated five-game homestand. Beating Kentucky for the first time since 2014 would send Missouri into its last bye week of the season with six victories, the mark for bowl eligibility — only if its appeal of an NCAA postseason ban is successful.

Should the Tigers fall to Kentucky, they’ll be 5-3, having lost three times this season despite being favored by 10 or more points in each of those games.

But nothing has swayed Missouri head coach Barry Odom or his coaching staff to turn back on their original idea of calling Manuel’s No. 31 for prime game action.

Odom said Manuel will be in a rotation with other defensive backs to fill the void left by Gillespie, but he’s no doubt in that fold. His level of play will determine how much.

“He’s worked extremely hard up to this point. He understands the scheme of the way we’re going to play,” Odom said of Manuel. “He’s got really good skill and we need him to do his job, just don't get in the moment so much that he thinks he's got to do something that's not (him).”

Those shouldn’t be hard directions for Manuel to follow. Last season as a senior at Rock Bridge, he filled several different roles.

One day, he was starting at wide receiver, another at cornerback. A few times he was running the Wildcat formation as a scout-team quarterback. That love for all things football seems to have always been part of Manuel’s DNA.

“He works so hard and we’ve come through so much to see him grind. From us grinding with our dad when we were younger, to all the way up to now through high school, and to now see him playing on television, it's just crazy to see that all the hard work is coming forth,” said Tre Manuel, Martez’s younger brother who is now a senior defensive back at Rock Bridge. “... He’s not as much of a hot-head as he used to be. When we were younger, he’d make every little thing get to him. But now, he's more composed and he completed his game over high school and he's a great player.”

Tre remembers that while growing up alongside Martez, they would spend countless hours playing the NCAA Football video game. They would battle with their virtual counterparts, but the brothers also would talk about what college they wanted to attend.

Martez made clear his top choice: Missouri.

Those aspirations became one step closer when the Manuel family moved to Columbia around the time Martez and his brother Marcus Manuel, currently a freshman wide receiver at Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, started high school.

As a Bruin, Martez quickly became a respected athlete by not only his teammates, but his coaches and teachers as well.

“Everything that's about ready to happen to him, he’s worked very hard for that. ... He just loves to play the game,” Rock Bridge head coach Van Vanatta said. “He’s gone out and earned every bit of it.”

Manuel is one of the few players on the Missouri roster who arguably wasn’t the best player on his high school team. Manuel is close friends with Nathaniel Peat, the former Bruins standout running back who picked up a Missouri offer a few years ago before playing a down of varsity football.

Peat is now at Stanford, and the Cardinal aren’t redshirting him, either. Manuel and Peat signed with their respective Division I schools side-by-side at the Columbia-based Cor organization last December, a fitting move for the duo that kept each other in check throughout their time at Rock Bridge, even getting their 100 nightly pushups in together over FaceTime.

Manuel also spent his prep days in Columbia being a friend and mentor to not only Tre, but several other teammates as well. He’ll soon reunite with Will Norris and Jalen Logan-Redding, two current Bruin seniors and Missouri football commits.

“Who Martez is to me is a person who really knows how to get better as a person,” Logan-Redding said of Manuel. “He’s been through it. I know he's been through it because I’ve been there with him.”

Logan-Redding remembers jogging with his dog last summer when he stopped at a traffic light at the corner of Providence Road and Southampton Drive. At the same red light, Manuel pulled up in a car full of Missouri football players and took the time on the way to a team meeting to introduce everyone to Logan-Redding.

That’s part of Manuel’s attention to detail that’s fast-tracked his first collegiate start.

The biggest game of his career so far comes away from Columbia, but in Lexington, he’ll have family that lives in Kentucky and some traveling from Missouri in the stands.

On the sidelines, Manuel said he’s gotten nothing but encouragement from MU coaches and teammates.

“He’s been great since he got here," Tigers linebacker Nick Bolton said of Manuel. "... We've got faith in him to do his job at a high level for a half, maybe the whole game, depends on how good he's playing. We just instill confidence in the young guy.”

When Manuel transitioned from junior high to Rock Bridge, he wanted to give himself to a greater cause but needed a little direction of where to steer that focus.

Four years ago, that came from former Rock Bridge head coach and current Missouri tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile.

Now, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters is one of the main voices helping Manuel unlock his inner-beast.

“There was no real drop-off, which was exciting to see. ... The moment wasn't too big for him,” Walters said of Manuel’s play last Saturday. “He was obviously in there for some critical moments. He missed one tackle, but other than that, he played well.

“Especially when they’re freshmen, I've got my thumb on them. I think he's going to be a really good player, so you've got to force the issue early, and so obviously you have the tough conversations on the field and you bring them up as you get off the field.”

Before Saturday, Manuel played primarily in a special teams role for MU but saw defensive action with big leads against West Virginia, SEMO and Troy.

Despite the team being forced to make a personnel change this week, he wouldn’t get this opportunity in the spotlight just shy of three months after his first snaps in a Missouri uniform if Odom and Walters didn't think he was ready.

They're not the only ones who think he's up for the challenge.

“Martez, he’s like my best friend. He's like my role model, he's just who I want to be like,” Tre said of his older brother. “Martez has been good his whole life, but I feel like this Saturday, you're going to see a different side of him.”

It’s been a long path for the 18-year-old Manuel to get here.

Now he can start to make a name for himself on the national stage.

“I’m just taking a real confident approach to it," Martez said. "I’m confident in myself and my ability. I'm confident in the defense that anything I'm confused about, they'll help me out.

"I’m just ready to tackle this and prove to everybody that I’m ready.”

eblum@columbiatribune.com