A leaner, healthier, and focused Adrian Martinez calls this a “prove it” year for Nebraska, for the offense, and for himself.
The fourth-year quarterback met with media Monday and held court for longer than his position coach. There was a lot to discuss. But in the areas where Martinez needs to be better, the list was really rather short.
“No more frickin’ turnovers,” Mario Verduzco said. “That’s it. Just gotta take care of the damn football. Seriously. Coach Frost mentioned it, the Rutgers game was probably the worst game and the best game I’ve ever seen.”
Martinez fumbled twice on the Huskers’ opening possession that day, losing the final one. It was the precursor for a day that would see Nebraska fumble five times in total (losing two of them) and throw a pair of interceptions. On the flip side, Martinez missed only two of his 26 other pass attempts. He threw for 255 yards and a score and rushed for another 157 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
Nebraska outgained Rutgers 365-59 in the second half and outscored it 21-7 to leave with a 28-21 win. Good and bad. Head coach Scott Frost mentioned it during a press conference last Monday that kicked off spring ball. Others have alluded to it since.
Clean up the mistakes and Nebraska can do some stuff worth respecting.
In a video shared by the Huskers on social media, Verduzco can be heard telling Martinez that if he cleans up the turnovers, he can be an All-Big Ten kind of quarterback.
— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) April 3, 2021
“If he truly cares about his teammates like I know he does—evidenced by his behavior in the Penn State game—then take care of the ball,” Verduzco continued on Monday. “Those guys on defense don’t want to see turnovers. I don’t want to see turnovers. Coach Frost absolutely does not want to see turnovers.”
Martinez likes where he’s at with regards to the interception piece. He has an interception rate of 2.7% for his career at Nebraska (as charted by Hail Varsity’s Brandon Vogel), but it was lower a season ago. In completing 71.5% of his passes, he set a program record for completion rate. Decision-making in the passing game, as far as where he’s throwing the ball when he does throw it, was better.
(The completion percentage was probably helped by a reluctance to throw deep. Testing a team deep when presented with the opportunity is an area in need of improvement. Martinez acknowledged that. We’ll discuss that piece of it later in the week.)
But he’s fumbled the ball 27 times in his career and lost 15 of them. Given the rushing workload, that’s worked out to about a fumble every 14th carry.
“It has to be an effort on my part. Really, it’s ball security,” the quarterback said. “I really hurt my team when I fumble the ball. That hurts the defense.” Nebraska’s defense had one of the 30 worst starting field positions on average a season ago, and part of that is on special teams but part of it too is on the offense’s inability to hang onto the football. NU had the fifth-worst turnover margin in the country.
The Huskers, as running backs coach Ryan Held said Monday, “pay rent” when they fumble. It’s being stressed, specifically with the quarterbacks. Remember hearing Denzel Washington threaten his team with a mile-run should they fumble? Think that.
Martinez admits the areas where he gets in trouble are when he’s fighting for more, just doing too much, he said. The effort’s always there, and Verduzco loves that, but 5 yards is good. Five yards is a successful first-down play.
“I know he’s playing hard, I know he wants to make plays, I know he wants to do the right thing, but there comes a point where that sort of extra effort gets you in trouble,” Verduzco said. “Let the defense do their job. The defense is gonna win one now and again. Not every play is going to be a touchdown pass or an 80-yard run or whatever. Just take care of the ball and be judicious.”
Martinez is a mature young man. Has been from the moment he got to campus. Yet Verduzco senses more of a conscientiousness from him in the albeit brief practice time so far. If the play’s there to be made, Martinez is gunning to make it. If the window is closed, he’s burning it.
The California native is healthy this offseason. He hasn’t spent many during his time at Nebraska where he could say that. “As far as I can tell right now, he’s golden,” Verduzco said. But he went into last season’s prep a little beat up and came out of the Rutgers game a little beat up. Had Nebraska played in a bowl game, he would have tried to make it work, but “if it was a week later, who knows,” he said.
For himself, he put an emphasis during the winter on leaning out.
“I want to get that quickness and that first-step burst back,” he said. As a freshman, Martinez had a snap to his game. As a sophomore, “I was a little too heavy.” He said he felt like he’s learned more of what’s right for his particular body. And he felt good about the way he tested following winter conditioning. As far as getting that burst back, he said “I feel like I’m well on my way to doing that.”
By all accounts, Martinez is the voice of the team. He’s the spiritual leader, if you will. He’s been a tremendous help for the freshmen quarterbacks in the room—Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg—and gone above and beyond to be that ear for guys elsewhere on the team.
From an experience standpoint, last year helped a lot.
“I think more than anything I showed myself that I can still have an impact on the field and during practice without me being the starting quarterback,” Martinez said.
He was benched mid-year for Luke McCaffrey. McCaffrey has since left the team, but Martinez seems thankful for the competition the now-Louisville Cardinal quarterback gave him. “It was adversity, something to battle through,” Martinez said. McCaffrey pushed him in the offseason, in fall camp, and then on into the season.
Seemed like that had an impact on everyone, not just Martinez. Verduzco got a little emotional when discussing the decision to bench one for the other. “Y’all have children, and you love them to death,” he said. “(Martinez)’s like a son. Sometimes those things are difficult, to tell them the truth about those things.” But the relationship remains in a good place, both between Verduzco and Martinez and between Frost and Martinez.
Frost has been more hands-on with the quarterback in the aftermath.
“I’ve gotten better at understanding where he’s coming from, as far as what plays he wants to call, where he expects the ball to go, and our communication on the field has improved too,” Martinez said.
Martinez is the guy this spring. Few expect him to lose the job this season. In that way, it feels a little like 2019. Martinez, on the heels of a Freshman All-American season, was not driven in the same way he was during his first offseason, Frost has since said.
“Don’t allow that same sort of thing to take place a second time around,” Verduzco warns.
Going back to that video, Martinez can be heard at one point getting on himself while talking to wideout Levi Falck. “I’m just pissed bro,” he says. “I’m trying to be perfect out here.” Falck spoke Monday and said Martinez looks as smooth and as strong throwing the ball as he’s seen him.
“I appreciate that,” Martinez said when told about Falck’s comment. “I would agree. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but for sure.” Why? Reps. He wanted to focus on leaning out, on getting faster and getting more strength throwing the ball. “We really put some time in heading into spring ball and I feel good about that.”
Asked if he was approaching this season as if it’ll be his last year, Martinez said that with everything that has happened it would be a little foolish to look too far into the future. The door to returning and playing potentially a fifth year for Nebraska is “definitely open,” he said. You never know.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs over my career here, and I just want to leave it all out there,” Martinez said. “I think there’s a lot we’re capable of, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. We’ve got to work for it.”