Attention-grabbing debuts are sort of becoming a thing with Taylor Martinez.
In 2010 it was the blistering speed. Martinez took the first carry of his career 46-yards for a touchdown, part of a 127 yard, three touchdown day. At the time, nobody knew he could do that.
In 2011, he did it again, rushing for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga. The question then was how he would recover from the ankle injury that sidelined him in 2010. He reconfirmed he could do that.
The most surprising season debut of all, however, may have come on Saturday. The question this year was about his passing ability. Martinez spent the summer studying with passing gurus. His footwork was better they said, his decisions sharper, all the stuff fall camp is made of.
The first proof of that transformation came against Southern Mississippi. Like the Huskers’ pace on offense, it came quick.
At the end of the first quarter Martinez was 8-for-10 passing with a touchdown. By halftime he had added two more touchdown passes and had 247 yards passing, a total that bettered all but one game from 2011. When it was all over, Martinez had the best passing day of his career: 26-for-34, 354 yards, five touchdowns, a 49-20 win.
“It’s what I expected from Taylor,” coach Bo Pelini said after the game. That probably makes Pelini one of the few, at least outside the Nebraska locker room, who could say that.
But it wasn’t the mechanics that made Martinez’s day special. There were no freeze frames that made ex-quarterbacks, or armchair quarterbacks, cringe but his throwing motion still won’t be used in any instructional videos. Rather, it was his calm.
Nebraska’s offensive line stepped up big on Saturday. Martinez had all the time he needed and a seemingly endless supply of new receivers to throw to. They shuffled in and out every play as the Huskers floored their no-huddle attack in the first half and Martinez found them. He found them all, short and long.
Ten different receivers caught a ball. All four tight ends had a catch. Martinez made a check down or two. He had one ball that should have been a pick six in the first half but the Southern Mississippi defender dropped it.
It was that kind of day, the kind of shocking season opener I guess we should now expect from Martinez.
“We’ve been practicing all along like that,” Martinez said. “I don’t think anyone can stop us if we can keep going like that, we’ve got so many dynamic athletes out there.”
Nebraska does. All-everything running back Rex Burkhead went out in the first quarter with a knee sprain and starting wide receiver Tim Marlowe is lost for a few weeks with a broken collarbone, but the Huskers offense didn’t miss a beat. Martinez was quick to praise everyone else, but he was a big part of it.
Was it a statement game? Proof-positive that Martinez has turned the corner and is on his way to becoming a true dual-threat? He was asked that after the game.
“I’m sure you guys are going to write something,” he said. “I guess if you guys want to say that. I just got out there and try my best.”
That last sentence sounds like the ultimate example of the clichéd sports quote, but here’s the thing: I believe him.
Martinez has a bit of a California cool to him. He wore black Vans with his white socks pulled up to the press conference. His seeming unease with the media could come from the fact that he honestly doesn’t think about things – completion percentage, perception, success — the way the rest of us do.
Is it really possible that he didn’t notice the past two years of highs and lows? Does the sometimes fierce criticism not get to him?
“No, not really,” Martinez said.
It’s a lot easier to buy after yet another jaw-dropping performance to open the season. We all know the dangers of making big assumptions after one game but Martinez earned another look on Saturday.
It’s possible he’s not just an uncommon talent. He might be an uncommon thinker too.
That’s what it would take to survive the highs and lows, the scrutiny and the touchdown screams he’s received the past two years.
I don’t know if Taylor Martinez will continue to be a new and improved passer.
On Saturday he was. That’s not a statement, it’s a fact.