Nebraska Football Wide Receiver Oliver Martin Running Against Illinois
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Comfortable, Fast, Explosive; Oliver Martin Was a Bright Spot at Illinois

September 01, 2021

To put it simply, Nebraska’s offense didn’t scare defenses last season. The threat of the downfield pass was essentially non-existent as the Huskers finished with a Big Ten-worst five passing touchdowns and 6.6 yards per attempt, which was tied for 93rd in the nation with Vanderbilt and Hawaii.

Saturday’s loss at Illinois to kick off the 2021 college football season featured a lot of bad for the Huskers. There were penalties at the worst time. Bonehead mistakes that cost points. More poor kicks that you wished went farther. But there was a bright spot amid all the darkness on that sunny and hot day in Champaign: Oliver Martin.

It’s just one game of course, a small sample size, but Martin was the one wideout who seemed to have a connection with quarterback Adrian Martinez. Someone Martinez looked for on key downs.

The connection was evident on a first-and-10 early in the second quarter, when Martin exploded past the corner who was in press coverage with a quick move to the inside. The result was a 43-yard gain after a pretty over-the-shoulder catch. Nebraska had just one pass play of at least 40 yards in eight games last season.

This past spring, Martin said he’s always felt he’s been a good deep-ball threat. During Nebraska’s spring testing, he was was clocked at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

“That’s always been something I’ve thought of as a strength for me. I feel like I can do that consistently,” he said of being a deep threat.

Then, faced with a second-and-26 to start the fourth, Martinez found Martin again. This time, Martin had to leave his feet for the catch. He won a one-on-one battle with corner Tony Adams, who didn’t think Martin caught it and violently waved his arms signaling an incompletion. Martin did catch it, though, as replay later confirmed.

And with 2:46 left in the game, Martinez and Martin found each other again, this time for a 4-yard touchdown. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Martin was put in motion—a tool used to tell Martinez if the defense is in man coverage—prior to the snap and navigated his way past an Illini defender into the end zone for the easy pitch-and-catch.

When his day was done, Martin had a team-high 11 targets and caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown (the next receiver with the most targets was Samori Toure with five). Nebraska wideouts had just one 100-yard receiving day in 2020—Wan’Dale Robinson’s nine-catch, 114-yard effort at Purdue. Robinson, who transferred to Kentucky in the offseason, was viewed by the coaching staff as the guy who, at times, was force-fed the ball.

Trust is something that quarterbacks and receivers need to have with one another. At times last season, trust didn’t seem to be there, and Martin had a slow start to his Husker career after gaining an immediate-eligibility waiver from the NCAA in November of 2020.

Martin spoke on how he felt coming into this season this past spring. He said he felt fast and explosive. Confident in his abilities and with the new language that comes with learning a new playbook.

“A lot of the pass and run concepts are similar between schools, but they’re called different things so you have to learn new language,” Martin said. “But I feel like I can execute the plays the coaches are calling, whether that’s getting open in a zone or getting open against man coverage. I feel really good where I’m at right now.”

Again, there’s a small sample size after just one game, but Martinez said he has that coveted trust with the Iowa native. Martin isn’t thinking about what his route will be now. Instead, he’s reading and reacting to what the defense is doing, which is a product of experience.

Martin feels more natural on the field. More loose. Martinez sees that.

“He’s a guy that will go up and get it. He proved that Saturday. And he is really fast. He can make plays,” Martinez said of Martin on Monday. “He knows where he is supposed to be. I think he’s a stud and I’m excited to see what else he can do for us this year.”

Martin’s journey to Nebraska has been well documented. A former top-200 national recruit according to the 247Sports Composite, Martin committed to Michigan but transferred back to his home state, Iowa, for the 2019 season. Like he did with the Wolverines, Martin left after only one season with the Hawkeyes.

Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick recruited Martin while he was at Oregon from 2013-16. The trust in Martin was something that drew him to Lubick and Nebraska when he was seeking a better situation after entering the transfer portal at Iowa.

There are issues to work out with Nebraska’s offense—the run and pass blocking suffered at Illinois. But having a wideout who has a connection with Martinez is a plus. That wasn’t the case in 2020, but it might be in 2021 with a more confident Martin.

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