Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

As Things Stand, Nebraska Doesn’t Need to Look to the Transfer Portal for Another Quarterback

May 09, 2021

You have Tate Martell. Meh. You have Chris Robison who has twice been dismissed from programs for non-football problems. Nope. You have Austin Kendall, who’s looking for a place where he can be the guy after being a backup at OU and losing his job at West Virginia. Probably doesn’t make sense for him. Former LSU quarterback TJ Finley? That would say something about Adrian Martinez that would fly in the face of everything we heard this spring. Unlikely.

On and on and on down the list of quarterbacks in the transfer portal—and, sure, there are likely more to enter the portal in the coming weeks with the spring period ending for most—you’ll find guys either looking to be the guy or guys who have been buried on depth charts looking for a chance.

The ideal quarterback Nebraska would look at taking from the transfer portal isn’t there. 

The player that would be competent enough to carry the burden should Adrian Martinez pick up an injury would have to be OK with sitting behind Martinez and potentially never getting a shot. And he’d have to have legitimate in-game experience to separate himself from the other two scholarship quarterbacks on Nebraska’s roster. 

When Husker head coach Scott Frost says making an addition at quarterback isn’t high on his list of offseason priorities, it’s got a lot to do with the fact that what he’d want probably wouldn’t be available. 

But, it also has a lot to do with what he already has. 

“That was a position, complete transparency, that we were going to take a hard look at in spring and decide if we needed to add someone there or not,” Frost said this week during a radio appearance on Sports Nightly. “We came out of spring and decided we’re pretty comfortable with who we have there.”

Nebraska has good options, the fourth-year coach said. 

“That says a lot about the guys at that position because they’re young and haven’t played a lot, but I just saw continual improvement and understanding of the offense from all three of those guys behind Adrian,” he continued. “Saw a lot of talent from those guys behind him. We really feel good about the fact that by the time we get to (August) we’ll have one or more of those guys ready to go in if need be. That speaks a lot to who those kids are and how talented they are.”

Just to lay the land, Nebraska has in Martinez a quarterback with 749 career pass attempts and 28 career appearances. 

Behind him, NU has two scholarship freshmen—Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg—who have yet to play in a collegiate game. Smothers enrolled a year ago and traveled to all five of Nebraska’s road games but never saw the field. Haarberg enrolled for this past spring semester.

Nebraska also has Matt Masker, a walk-on in his fourth year with the program, who might not have the physical tools of others in the room but has as strong an understanding of the offense as anyone. 

“I think Masker has been a great leader for our room,” Martinez said after the spring game. “He’s one of the most humble dudes on our football team and I think he’s been great for Logan and Heinrich.”

As for Haarberg, it’s clear now he came in and surprised everyone in the building with his day one talent. 

“He made a few throws during the spring that everybody kinda turned and looked at each other,” Frost said. “I think if I threw it like him I probably wouldn’t be a coach right now because I’d have had a career as a player, so I’m a little bit jealous of his arm strength and his ability to rip it. 

“There’s a lot of raw material to work with there with him both in the run game and the pass game. With him, like a lot of the young guys, it’s just confidence and complete familiarity with things so you can operate quickly and make fast decisions.”

Nebraska didn’t get to evaluate Haarberg in-person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and tape doesn’t do his talent justice. The young man has a tremendous arm. Like Frost says, the key for him will be mental mastery of the offense, but he’ll be able to make every throw asked of a major Big Ten quarterback. And Haarberg has the stature and athleticism to be an incredibly effective passer in this league with time. 

“Heinrich is very talented,” Martinez said. “I think he has a great arm, and he’s learning the offense just like I did when I was first here as an early-enrollee and that can be hard. But he’s handled it really well.”

As much as anything, his proficiency right away allows Nebraska to go elsewhere with its open scholarships. Perhaps an outside linebacker/edge rusher type gets added to the bunch, a better allocation of resources than an insurance policy. 

To be clear, worry about the backup quarterback purely because of Martinez’s injury history is fair. He’s missed a game because of something here or there in each of his first two seasons. At the end of last year, he was beat up. 

Nebraska has run him too much; he’s led the team in carries each of the last two seasons. Change that and the itch to have insurance behind him won’t be so strong. 

But don’t build a team or a strategy based on fear of what might happen. A quarterback coming in could harm the development of Smothers or Haarberg if reps that would go to them in the fall suddenly get rerouted. Or it could signal a lack of trust that might prove problematic going forward

Of course, this calculus might change if someone in the room decides to step away. If Haarberg lives up to his spring billing and takes the No. 2 job, Smothers could find himself looking at two years going by without appearing in a game, losing a job to a guy with just as many years of eligibility as he has, and a new guy coming in soon. 

All that is conjecture. As things stand Nebraska has three scholarship quarterbacks and a walk-on capable of running the offense. Indications are that it feels good with that. 

Frost has said as much three times now in the last month. When Luke McCaffrey transferred, it was fair to wonder whether Nebraska needed to replace him and his experience at the No. 2 spot. With spring ball done and dusted, I’d say that worry is no longer necessary. 

If Nebraska is committed to insulating Martinez more from hits, none of this ends up mattering. And if it can’t, NU will be better served in the long run trusting its own evaluations and turning to the guys already here. 

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