Our countdown of the 10 most intriguing Huskers of the 2022 season has reached its end with a portmanteau of QBs.
If you need a refresher on the players so far in the countdown, you can find them all right here:
No. 10 Tommi Hill | No. 9 Marques Buford Jr. | No. 8 Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda | No. 7 Trey Palmer | No. 6 Anthony Grant | No. 5 Ty Robinson | No. 4 Turner Corcoran/Teddy Prochazka | No. 3 Mark Whipple | No. 2 Ochaun Mathis
Before we dive into discussing our latest pick, let’s clarify something first: What do we mean by intriguing? Oxford Languages defines intriguing as arousing one’s curiosity or interest. In other words, fascinating. Which 10 Huskers fascinate you the most heading into the season? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
Over the past 13 years, Nebraska has only really had two offseasons with full-on quarterback uncertainty. After the Huskers struggled to find just the extra bit of offense it needed to support one of the best defenses in the country in 2009, you had the Zac Lee, Cody Green, Taylor Martinez runoff, and, well, Taylor Martinez doesn’t lose runoffs.
His 3.33-season reign transitioned out of injury necessity to Tommy Armstrong Jr. He had a 3.67-season run, while Tanner Lee waited in the wings (and had to as a transfer). It was eight years after the Taylor Martinez battle before the Huskers had another one in 2018 with Adrian Martinez beating out Tristan Gebbia in August.
This offseason might be the third competition. Emphasis on might.
We all understand the setup here. Casey Thompson has the most experience at this level, which should be good for a leg up. Chubba Purdy feels like a bit of a late entry due to an injury that held him back in spring, but we know new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has had his eye on him since Purdy was in high school. Logan Smothers is the only one of the three primary contenders who has taken any snaps in a Nebraska uniform before.
What do you do with that as fall camp gets underway next week?
The Occam’s razor solution here is Thompson. He’s seen the most. He’s been in a Red River Rivalry game and thrown five touchdowns against an Oklahoma. He’s helped lead a team to a 24-13 lead late in the third quarter against a nasty defense, 2021 Oklahoma State in this case, and had to watch it evaporate. Good results or bad, the battles should matter in an open QB race.
So, why isn’t that the end of the story? It might be, but things feel a little more complicated as the season is about to begin.
It’s hard to throw out Purdy knowing he wasn’t fully in the race at the beginning of spring. Despite that, in a very, very small sample size in the spring game—which was the case for all three contenders—he may have looked the best, whatever that’s worth.
Smothers may, probably should, have the familiarity edge, not just with what this offense was prior to Whipple’s arrival but he’s also been a part of the team for two seasons. His teammates know him, have seen his work at length and it’s the kind of Sunday-to-Friday work that nobody else notices. That may, probably should, matter at quarterback in particular.
Then there’s the matter of what this new version of Nebraska’s offense will look like. Last week, in a Sports Nightly interview, Whipple said the Huskers “will use” some of the option game this offense has featured in the past. He was talking about Smothers’ strength in that part of the game, but those are Purdy’s roots as well. He rushed for 1,152 yards and 23 touchdowns as a high school junior (threw for 3,425 yards and 36 scores, too). Purdy was the seventh-ranked dual-threat quarterback at 247 Sports in the 2020 class, seven spots ahead of Smothers.
If the QB run game truly isn’t moth-balled at Nebraska, the presumption for most of the offseason, it has to benefit Smothers and Purdy, right?
Probably, but Texas quarterback Hudson Card was the No. 2 dual-threat in that 2020 class and Steve Sarkisian’s game-one starter in last season in Austin. But Card eventually gave way to—dramatic pause—Casey Thompson.
What does Nebraska’s offense need from its quarterback in 2022? It’s a question that’s hard to answer right now. Maybe it was hard to answer for the past four seasons.
ESPN’s QBR is structured in such a way that the rating you see—say, 75.0—is meant to represent “that holding all other factors constant (defense, offensive teammates, etc.), a quarterback’s team would be expected to win about 75 percent of time, given that level of QB play.” This isn’t the place to litigate the validity of ESPN’s proprietary QB measure, we’re just simply entering it as evidence for now.
Last season, Adrian Martinez had a 72.5 QBR (28th nationally) and Nebraska had a .250 winning percentage. That was the largest split between QBR and team winning percentage of Martinez’s career. The smallest split came in Martinez’s worst QBR season, 2019, a year when he was listed among the Heisman favorites and Nebraska spent most of the summer as a trendy team. That year, Martinez posted a 54.6 QBR and the Huskers’ had a winning percentage of .417. The five wins that season remain the most of the Scott Frost era.
None of that should be read as a direct critique of Martinez. To me, those numbers highlight how strong his play was even despite the known (and consistent) pain points. To put it another way, if you watched the last four years of Nebraska football and it wasn’t apparent Martinez was one of Nebraska’s best players, often the best player on offense, go back and watch all four again.
But those numbers also highlight that there isn’t always a 1:1 relationship between strong individual quarterback play and team wins, despite that being one of the stated goals of QBR. Thompson’s 62.6 QBR (62nd) didn’t translate to a .626 winning percentage at Texas last year (it was 5-7, .417). Purdy posted a 45.9 QBR in his first college start, when he was thrown to the Wolfpack as a true freshman in a 38-22 loss at North Carolina State. Smothers posted a 54.8 QBR in his first start, last year’s break-the-TV collapse against Iowa. It was a team collapse, undoubtedly, but Smothers had two turnovers and a sack for a safety in the final 15 minutes.
Bottom line, good quarterback play is important to winning but it’s not the only thing. If it were, Nebraska would’ve won more games, particularly the last two seasons when Martinez posted top-30 QBRs that were each over 70.0.
Maybe this August’s race is decided by experience. Maybe it’s by who can “make all the throws.” Maybe it’s intangibles. Maybe the coaches already know.
But we don’t, which is why we’re not calling it yet.
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.