Assistant Coach Mardio Verduzco stands and gives direction during practice
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

QB is Crowded at Nebraska, the Hope is Competition Breeds Better

May 11, 2020

Welcome to Speed City.

The roads are crowded.

“I think competition breeds better players,” says 2021 quarterback commit Heinrich Haarberg‍. “Yeah, there are sometimes when the best spot to go is where there’s no competition but you’ve got to have a little bit of competition to get better, otherwise you’ll be stuck where you are. … Competition doesn’t drive me away, it only makes me better.”

Nebraska’s quarterback competition is tough, and getting tougher. Scott Frost took a quarterback to begin the program restoration when he first took the head coaching job in 2018, then took another quarterback the following year, then another in the 2020 class, and as of Saturday has one for the 2021 class.

Haarberg, a 3-star local from Kearney Catholic, got an offer from Nebraska a week ago. Frost likes to see his quarterbacks throw in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic has obviously prevented such trips. Nebraska, as it often does, trusted its eyes and its evaluation chops and offered anyway.

Over the course of the next week, Haarberg wanted to know what Nebraska envisioned for him. Quarterback coach Mario Verduzco makes no promises with regards to role, but new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has been selling something that was absolute music to Haarberg’s ear: “It’s the quarterback development comparison he used for me,” Haarberg said, “for me it was Justin Herbert.”

Frost was the one who found Herbert, the former Oregon Duck quarterback and recent sixth-overall NFL Draft selection of the San Diego Chargers (won’t do it). Lubick was the one who coached him. “Ever since I saw Justin first play as a sophomore, that’s really who I wanted to emulate my play after,” Haarberg said. “A big, strong, athletic quarterback who can make some difficult passes but also run when needed.”

Herbert was a 3-star recruit. Haarberg is the same. Herbert possesses exceptional size at the position, Haarberg stands the same 6-foot-5. He might grow more yet. Herbert has a bazooka for an arm. Haarberg has the same.

Verduzco will get the young quarterback coached up with areas that need improvement whenever he arrives on campus after his senior season, but for now, Verduzco wants Haarberg not to worry about being Herbert.

“Don’t think about the Huskers,” Haarberg says Verduzco told him. “He made sure to encourage that I’m a high school student this last year. I know that when I get there, I’ll probably have a lot of things he wants me to work on, but as of right now, he wants me to be who I am and play how I (play).”

This is what Nebraska does with its quarterbacks. Identify early, form a relationship, give them space, let them be themselves, then coach them up upon arrival. Verduzco likes to say the quarterback is but a cog in the wheel of success, and yet he’s stockpiled a room full of weaponized cogs other programs would kill to have.

Hail Varsity’s recruiting expert, Greg Smith, has said this goes beyond just beefing up a room that was lacking upon arrival. This is how they want to do it, taking a quarterback each year.

Yes, a quarterback run-oriented offense needs depth to insulate against injury, but Nebraska’s is a process that flies in the face of the current quarterbacking-in-college-football climate.

A team can only play one. Verduzco very much subscribes to the belief that two equals none. If the one does his job, he’ll occupy the job for two, three, sometimes four years. If Adrian Martinez and the Husker offense can put the pieces into place in 2020, Martinez will have that very chance.

That would make Luke McCaffrey a redshirt junior by the time the top line on the depth chart is up for grabs. If in fact he’s the leader at that point.

Maybe Martinez has a dynamite junior season and declares for the NFL Draft. Maybe in that scenario, a redshirt freshman Logan Smothers wins the battle for the 2021 job. Someone—or someones—will always be squeezed from this room.

Verduzco said last season we’ll all find out together how their process comes to work. Noah Vedral was the first casualty. Not that he should be vilified for “running from competition” or any of the other narratives tossed around the quarterback transfer market these days. Vedral found himself in a tough situation at Nebraska. He won’t be the last.

Haarberg could arrive in 2021, take his redshirt year, and still sit another two before getting the chance to make good on the Herbert comp.

He’ll have the added weight on his shoulders of being a Nebraska native. The last in-state scholarship quarterback to commit to the school came in 2001. “There hasn’t been a (local) quarterback to commit to Nebraska since before I was born,” Haarberg said. “Hopefully that can be something that makes me a special quarterback to the state of Nebraska.”

Still, it’s something he doesn’t want to add to his plate. Unnecessary pressure to add to a situation where there will already be plenty. It helps that Frost is a shoulder to lean on there.

“Throughout this recruiting process, that’s been a unique relationship that I haven’t had with anyone else,” he said. “That was one of the things that made me pick Nebraska, that unique relationship. I think it’s really cool that I can go and talk to (Frost) about being from central Nebraska.

“He probably got a little more national exposure than I did.”

Oh, that’ll change. Exposure is one of the burdens blessings of Nebraska’s bright spotlight. It often shines hottest on the quarterback room.

We’ll debate how successful Nebraska is based on how it develops these quarterbacks. Does Adrian Martinez “turn it around?” Does McCaffrey become more than a runner? Is Smothers the best of the bunch? Each future quarterback commit will enter with fanfare and expectations, and should things stay the same (never a safe assumption), they’ll enter rooms with a basketball lineup’s worth of guys just a few rungs further up the ladder.

The fire of the competition will forge the strongest mettle. At least, that’s the goal.

“I’m going to go in and compete no matter what ranking I am or where I am on the depth chart that day,” Haarberg said. “I’m going to go out and compete and I know those guys will as well.”

The room is better for it. Speed City is special that way.

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