Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

An NFL Free Agent Acquisition, A Tight Race for QB2, RB Thoughts, and More

April 11, 2021

We’re two weeks into spring ball. Figured I’d use this weekend space here to brain dump a few storylines I’ve been thinking about. Let’s get into it. 

Adrian Martinez looks better. And I say that for a few reasons. He looks at peace, comfortable. His receivers are saying he’s throwing it better.

And then physically he looks trimmed down, in sort of an obviously noticeable way. Maybe it’s just that he seems to have ditched the flak jacket for the spring, but he’s revealed now that he wants to rediscover that first-step quickness he had as a freshman. 

Nebraska put a lot of weight onto his frame following that Freshman All-American campaign, and Martinez didn’t quite look right as a sophomore. As a junior, he appeared to have shed some of that sophomore weight, but the burst wasn’t all the way back. 

If it’s back, that’s a big deal, because Martinez was playing with a high deal of confidence late last year. I’m thinking about that shake-and-bake he put on a free Colorado rusher early on in his debut game in 2018, leaving the dude in the dust and sprinting down the left sideline. 

That Martinez, as a runner, was awesome. If that guy is back—and Martinez seems in good spirits about where he’s at athletically right now, so reason to think he might be—with the growth Martinez has made as a passer, I’ll be curious to see how Nebraska’s offense operates. 

Because I don’t think Nebraska will baby Martinez. There’s no point wrapping your fourth-year quarterback in bubble-wrap. Martinez should be running a little less in general as Nebraska tries to cut back on the fumbles—the best way is probably to just not put him in those positions—but any worry that he’ll be protected because there isn’t confidence in his replacements is, I think, a little premature and a little misguided. 

I think the backup quarterback spot is going to be more hotly contested than folks initially expected. 

It’s no secret first-year quarterback and Nebraska native Heinrich Haarberg has pleasantly surprised his new coaches since arriving on campus. Because of COVID-19, Scott Frost and Mario Verduzco hadn’t seen Haarberg throw in person before he got to campus, and when they finally saw the arm talent, Verduzco was left feeling like there wasn’t much to clean up in his throwing motion. 

In the brief throwing period media got to watch, Haarberg threw the best balls. As someone who watched him closely throughout his senior high school season, it wasn’t a surprise to see him lacing those inside the Hawks Championship Center. The young man has very real arm talent, and any suggestion that he was just depth filler, and premature writing off of what his Nebraska career could be, was short-sighted. 

Haarberg might realistically win the backup job, which would go down as an upset. Even if he doesn’t, and Logan Smothers holds him off to keep that No. 2, both guys will be better for it and Nebraska will be better for it. Martinez has been a perfect mentor for those young guys, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Matt Masker can be a sort of go-to for Haarberg, both of them being Kearney Catholic alums. 

Someone asked Verduzco this past week if Nebraska would look into a transfer quarterback after spring, but that option seems less likely today than it did in January.

I’m not too worried about the running back position. Maybe I should be, and I’d wager I’m certainly in the minority. But with the knowledge that USC transfer Markese Stepp will miss all of spring ball, and a few of his running back peers have been touch-and-go at the very least, there were some oh no’s uttered this week. 

Stepp could certainly benefit from spring with a new team and a new offense. Guys like Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins, of whom coaches are seeking more consistency, need to be out there every day. 

But Nebraska has five different guys I’d like to see in a featured running back role to know just what exactly they are. So if one or two of them is unavailable for a few days or a few weeks, it won’t drastically change my outlook on the group. I’m just as intrigued by Marvin Scott III as I am by Thompkins as I am by Jaquez Yant as I am by Gabe Ervin Jr. as I am by Sevion Morrison. 

As it relates to Stepp, as long as things are sunny by the summer, I don’t think there’s reason to worry. 

“The pass-protection was definitely easy for him because they threw the ball a lot,” running backs coach Ryan Held said this past week. “Some of the running concepts were similar. He’s picked it up really well, he takes a lot of notes, he’s engaged and watching what’s happening. 

“The key, especially with these new guys, is when the play’s going, we should get two reps every time—the person actually doing it and the guys who aren’t in should be getting a mental rep.

It’s time to move on from the bowl decision.

Please. 

Another injury situation the Huskers are dealing with this spring could open the door for Chris Kolarevic to swoop in and steal a job. The grad transfer from Northern Iowa at the FCS level is going to play this fall, it seems. With Will Honas, a returning starter at inside ‘backer, limited throughout the spring, Nebraska is going to have three guys fighting tooth and nail for two spots. 

This is a group that could theoretically look completely different this season than it did a year ago. Kolarevic and third-year Omaha native Nick Henrich could take the top two spots with strong springs. Luke Reimer won’t figure to go away quietly. Honas, if he’s fully healthy, will probably have one of the two spots. But it sounds like Kolarevic is a darkhorse defensive starter.

“He was a great weight room guy, a great workout guy this off-season, and he understands the game,” said inside linebacker coach Barrett Ruud. “He knows football. He knows concepts. He’s got to learn our concepts now, but he’s a guy (who) the game comes pretty naturally to. They did a good job developing him before he got here, so you’re getting a little bit of a ready-made product.”

As an assistant coach at Northern Iowa from 2004 to 2009, Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander knows that level well.

“There’s extremely good football players in that league, extremely good football teams, and really good coaching,” Chinander said. He has friendships with Kolarevic’s coaches at UNI, “so I know what kind of player he is and what they’ve done with him in the past.

“He knows all the concepts and everything that’s happening, it’s just learning a new set of language as he moves from UNI’s defense to our defense, but he’s been great. It’s been like a veteran, like getting a free agent in the NFL. I think that he’s going to have a huge impact on the football team.”

High praise. 

That would be quite the situation if Ruud ends up with four starter-level inside linebackers. Could Henrich pull double-duty as an outside guy again? What could you do with Reimer considering he’s widely regarded as one of the most athletic players on the team and has a demonstrated nose for the football? Let’s not put the cart before the horse, though. Lots of spring left.

Still, this Husker defense continues to develop quality depth. 

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