Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez running with the ball against Illinois
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

McCaffrey is the ‘Future at Quarterback,’ but Is He Nebraska’s Present?

November 23, 2020

Consider this: Luke McCaffrey is the future at quarterback for Nebraska, but in the present, he might lose his starting spot after only two weeks of holding it.

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost wouldn’t say Monday who will be his starting quarterback for Friday’s annual post-Turkey Day trot with the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

“Just like last week, we’re letting them compete,” he said. “Not sure.”

For the last two weeks, it has been McCaffrey, a redshirt freshman. He replaced Adrian Martinez right at the end of the third quarter against Northwestern on Nov. 7 and held the spot until there was only 4:10 to play in this past Saturday’s bludgeoning at the hands of Illinois. 

Martinez, a starter for the first two weeks as well as the first two years of his Nebraska career, came out for his first action since that Northwestern game following McCaffrey’s fourth turnover of the day. He immediately led a seven-play, 54-yard touchdown march.

Nebraska had hoped that moving from Martinez to McCaffrey would jumpstart its sputtering offense. NU had opened the season with 17 and 13-point outings. In the immediate aftermath of the move, Nebraska won. It beat Penn State 30-23. 

But the Nittany Lions are now 0-5 and Nebraska won thanks to back-to-back red zone stops from the Blackshirts on defense. Nebraska had 95 yards of offense in the second half that day and averaged 4.0 yards a play. 

McCaffrey’s play against Illinois opened the door right back up on the quarterback conversation. 

He was 15-for-26 throwing the ball, with 134 yards, no scores, and three interceptions. McCaffrey ran for 122 yards, but Nebraska’s rushing numbers are largely smoke and mirrors at play right now. The traditional run game is struggling, and quarterbacks have run at the expense of going through progressions in the pocket. 

Wan’Dale Robinson, arguably Nebraska’s best player, hasn’t been able to make a consistent impact on the game yet this year. But that’s not because defenses are keying in on him. They know where he is at all times, make no mistake, but opponents are learning to disregard Nebraska’s downfield passing game.  

“Taking anything away (from Wan’Dale Robinson)? No. We have a lot of people up near the line of scrimmage against us right now until we’re gonna be able to push the ball downfield better,” Frost said.

This is uncharted territory for Frost as a coach. At no other point in his coaching career has his offensive system cratered the way it is right now. 

Frost has coached Marcus Mariota, a Heisman winner. He recruited Justin Herbert, a top-10 selection in the NFL Draft. He’s coached McKenzie Milton, 2017’s most efficient quarterback. He knows what the ceiling looks like. 

Nebraska hasn’t gotten good enough quarterback play.

But Frost has faith in his guys.

“They both have enough talent to be those guys,” he said Monday. “We haven’t gotten them playing there yet. Luke was in his second start. That’s tough. Adrian has all the talent in the world and has the capability of doing it. Those guys can both be just like (his old quarterbacks), but there’s been games where we haven’t played like that. We have to do a better job as coaches to make sure we get those guys to max out their potential.”

Frost has been through some of the same adversity as a quarterback. He had a bullseye on his back after a 26-game win streak was broken in 1996 at Arizona State. He was booed in 1997 by the home crowd.

“Sometimes you need that shake-up. It puts a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind Luke McCaffrey’s the future around here, but right now, to help us win, we’ve got to play the guy that gives us the best chance, and I think Adrian’s been playing with a little chip on his shoulder.

“I feel good about both of them. We just need to keep coaching them as good as we can so we get the best that we can out of them.”

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