“We're probably going to go as far as he can take us this year.”
Scott Frost said that about sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez at last month’s Big Ten Media Days. The more I’ve thought about the more I’ve convinced myself they might be the 14 most interesting words of Nebraska’s offseason.
Let’s work backwards on this statement. Based on everything you’ve thought, learned and read since the end of last season, what are factors that potentially limit how good the Huskers will be in 2019? Would you put “defensive improvement” on the list? Probably should be after Nebraska ranked 80thin 2018 at 0.419 points per play allowed.
What about the situation at running back? There’s plenty of promise there, but that’s another way of saying that there’s little experienced production returning. The Huskers also have to replace last year’s leading receiver, though JD Spielman offers at least one proven weapon out wide.
Offensive line? It was solid last year but is breaking in two new starters, including the center.
These questions are easy to recite at this point in the football calendar. We’ve been talking about them for months. But in a world where Frost’s comment about Martinez is perfectly accurate, none of those concerns matters as much as how much better Martinez is in Year 2. The Huskers go as far as Martinez takes them.
If that does end up being true, Nebraska fans will probably be pretty happy come December.
Either ESPN’s Total QBR stat wasn’t built for today’s style of video-game football or we’re living in the age of ultimate quarterback dominance.
There are a few nice things about QBR. One, it isn’t just a passing stat, which is good for measuring the total impact of dual-threat quarterbacks. Two, it’s opponent-adjusted, not based on the overall strength of the defense but on how well they defend quarterbacks, a nice little detail. Three, it’s based on a 100-point scale with 50 being average and that’s easy to visualize.
ESPN has QBR stats going back to 2004. Five of the best seven QBR seasons since then have happened over the past three seasons. Three of those are the last three Oklahoma seasons including Kyler Murray’s 2018, which tops the list. While Murray and Baker Mayfield were quite clearly great quarterbacks, the Sooners’ dominance of the best quarterback performances since 2004 is at least an indication that the offense matters a little bit here, too. Oklahoma runs an offense that, when paired with the right kind of quarterback, is capable of producing insane numbers.
Nebraska offense is like that, too. Or at least I think it can be. Marcus Mariota’s three seasons at Oregon all rank in the top 30 all-time in QBR. McKenzie Milton’s 2017 UCF season ranks 56thout of 1,808 total results. (His raw QBR from that year, numbers only with no strength of schedule adjustment, ranks 15th.) Martinez, after one season, appears to be “one of those.”
But Martinez’s 2018 QBR is probably lower than you think. As a true freshman he finished the season at 63.1, which ranked 54th, one spot behind Colorado’s Steven Montez. It’s a good number, third-best among freshman quarterbacks, but maybe not the out-of-this-world number you may have thought it would be after a summer of looking at Martinez’s Heisman odds.
Here’s the other nice thing about QBR: That number is meant to correlate, roughly, with winning percentage. You get a better view through this lens of what Martinez’s play meant to Nebraska in 2018. His QBR was 63.1, but another way to view that is that he produced quarterback play that should’ve corresponded with a .631 winning percentage. Nebraska’s actual winning percentage was, of course, .333.
QBR does have a solid correlation with actual winning percentage, at least at the top of the scale. (I didn’t look much below that because, well, I’ll be very surprised if Martinez is below that going forward.) The top 40 QBR seasons since 2004 provides a cutoff point of 85.6. Twenty of those 40 quarterbacks had a winning percentage of .856 or greater (that’s 12-2 with a 14-game schedule), 26-of-40 were above .800 and 33-of-40 were above .750. If Martinez has a QBR of 75.0 that should equate to a 9-3 season based on how ESPN built this thing.
My feeling is that Martinez won’t have any problem eclipsing 75.0. If you’re curious, Milton jumped from a 34.7 QBR his freshman season to 87.6 as a sophomore and UCF went undefeated. Mariota was at the other end of the scale. His redshirt freshman season in 2012 was so good (82.2) that he couldn’t be much better. Mariota ranked second in QBR in 2012, second in 2013 and first in 2014. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is in a similar spot—he, and his team, can’t really be much better.
Martinez sits somewhere between those two poles. He was higher than Milton as a freshman but enters his second year with more room to grow than Mariota. Pair that with an offense that has the proven ability to make scoreboards beg for mercy and you have a really high ceiling for Nebraska in 2019.
If Nebraska does actually go as far as Martinez takes it in 2019. But when Frost says that, I don’t think he’s actually talking about Martinez. At least not totally. He’s really talking about everything happening around the quarterback.
Here’s the eye-popping thing Frost said about Martinez the Monday before the season opener against South Alabama: “Adrian provides us with at least a wow moment a day. He made a throw the other day that I’ve never really seen before. Maybe watching the Chiefs play last year.”
Frost was referring to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a guy who did things we’d never seen an NFL quarterback do almost weekly in 2018. But that wasn’t the most important thing Frost said about Martinez on Monday.
The most important thing was this: “I would have guessed that this is what Adrian would have accomplished, just knowing Adrian and the person that he was (getting to know him in recruiting). He certainly hasn’t disappointed . . . He’s considerably better right now, so I hope he keeps meeting and exceeding our expectations.”
Did you catch the difference there? Martinez met expectations as a freshman. High expectations. He played quarterback well enough to win seven or eight games on what was actually a four-win team. If you think the “hype” for Nebraska is already on the verge of being too much, imagine what it would’ve been if the Huskers had gone 7-5 in 2018. That’s the level, at least according to ESPN’s QBR, that Martinez was playing at.
So why didn’t Nebraska end up 7-5? We’ve been over that countless times since last fall, no need to rehash it when we’ve got new football in a couple of days.
But that frame of reference is key. Nebraska’s coaches thought they had a quarterback that offered unlimited program potential when they signed Martinez. Last season proved the coaches were right, but it also proved Nebraska wasn’t ready as a program to fully capitalize on it.
What I think Frost was saying when he said the 2019 Huskers will “go as far” as Martinez can take them is that the rest of the program has caught up. It is in a spot where Nebraska can capitalize on the total advantage its quarterback can offer.
That’s about as big of an advantage as you can get.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.