The back-up quarterback is often the most popular player on a football team. For Nebraska in 2019, however, that was true of the third-string signal-caller.
With Adrian Martinez’s play falling off from his freshman year and the team struggling as a whole, fans’ fascination turned to the shiny new freshman: Luke McCaffrey.
The speedy quarterback out of Colorado dazzled in his brief stretches of play, appearing in four games while maintaining his redshirt. He completed nine of his 12 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns and ran the ball 24 times for 166 yards and another score. He also caught one pass for 12 yards while playing a few snaps of wide receiver.
A quarterback battle was one of the big storylines that a lot of fans were looking forward to hearing about this spring. That obviously won’t happen now, but I’m not convinced it would have happened even if we got spring ball. McCaffrey certainly would have gotten plenty of reps to show the coaches what he could do, but Martinez is going to be Nebraska’s starting quarterback again next season.
As good as McCaffrey looked last season, the sample size is incredibly small. I went back and watched all of his snaps to get a better feel for what McCaffrey is as a quarterback at this point in his development.
McCaffrey played just 51 snaps of quarterback last season. He handed the ball off 14 times and pitched it away twice. He ran the ball himself 24 times with a combination of designed quarterback runs, option plays, zone reads and quarterback scrambles.
Of his 12 passes, one came on a reverse while he was playing wide receiver. I’m tossing that out. So that leaves us with just 11 pass attempts as a quarterback. Let’s run through each one.
McCaffrey made his debut against Northwestern when Noah Vedral’s helmet popped off, but he was one the field for just one snap and it was a designed quarterback run. Probably not the ideal way to burn one of his four games, but that’s how it played out.
He saw his most extensive playing time against the Hoosiers in late October. He completed five of his six passes for 71 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball 12 times for 76 yards.
He checked in for the first time after Vedral got banged up. His first snap was a run and his second was a hand-off to the running back before Nebraska punted.
Nebraska got the ball back at its own 26-yard line with just under 2 minutes to play and Nebraska trailing 16-14. With the time running down, McCaffrey had to run a two-minute offense, and he did it quite well.
McCaffrey kept the ball himself on a read on first down and picked up 12 yards. Nebraska hurried up to the line and Scott Frost gave McCaffrey a pretty simple throw—a screen pass.
McCaffrey took the snap, faked the hand-off to Wan’Dale Robinson and dropped back. Robinson hid behind the offensive line and started angling for the sideline as a Hoosier pass-rusher started to close in on McCaffrey. Off his back-foot with a bit of pressure in his face, McCaffrey put the ball on the money to a wide open Robinson in space.
Nebraska blocked the play well and Robinson picked up 22 yards on a pass that traveled 8 or 9 yards through the air. It was a simple play that Nebraska executed well, McCaffrey included.
After three straight runs (two by Robinson, one by McCaffrey), Nebraska had a first-and-10 from the 24-yard line with about 45 seconds to play. McCaffrey sent JD Spielman on a jet motion from right to left before the snap, and then McCaffrey rolled out to his right. Nebraska still had two receivers to the right with Kanawai Noa inside. On the snap, the receivers crossed each other down the field and Noa angled to the sideline.
On the run and with no one around him, McCaffrey threw the ball.
The route concept confused the Indiana defense and left Noa with a good 5 or 6 yards of separation.
The pass was a tad bit high and Noa had to twist his body to complete it, but after a brief bobble he secured the ball and got his foot down before falling out of bounds, giving McCaffrey his first career touchdown pass.
Again, McCaffrey did his job and capped off an impressive 73-second, 76-yard touchdown drive with a good––but not terribly contested or complicated––throw.
McCaffrey’s third drive consisted of three straight runs and a punt.
On the following drive, Nebraska ran it seven straight times to open things up. The eighth play was a pass.
McCaffrey took the snap and faked a hand-off to the running back. He didn’t see anyone open initially but felt pressure and stepped up in the pocket before looking to take off himself. However, just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage he saw Kade Warner open up the left sideline. McCaffrey tried the get the ball out but he got hit as he threw it and the ball bounced at Warner’s feet.
It was a broken play that McCaffrey tried to make the most of, and it just didn’t work out.
Nebraska went back to McCaffrey on the next play, dialing up another screen pass. After faking the hand-off to Robinson, McCaffrey had to side-step a rusher who was knocked off balance and diving forward at him before getting the ball out and completing the pass. Robinson picked up 8 yards to move the chains.
Frost made a smart call and once again McCaffrey executed it. The drive stalled at the 1-yard line, however, and Nebraska settled for a field goal.
McCaffrey’s penulimate drive came at the start of the fourth quarter with Nebraska trailing by a touchdown, and it was a short one.
After a run on first down, McCaffrey motioned Robinson out to his right, leaving an empty backfield. It appears as if Robinson was McCaffrey’s first read after the snap, but he apparently saw something he didn’t like with the blocking set up or the defensive numbers as he didn’t pull the trigger.
Feeling pressure up the middle, McCaffrey rolled out to his left with a lot of space in front of him once he cleared the edge rusher and got out of the pocket.
The defenders on the left side reacted to McCaffrey running free, and the quarterback kept his eyes downfield. Noa broke inside to find a gap in the defense and McCaffrey opened his hips, planted his feet and delivered a strike to Noa to move the chains.
Noa fumbled the ball after he caught it so the play ultimately went for naught, but it still showed off McCaffrey’s impressive ability to extend a play and make an accurate throw outside of the pocket.
McCaffrey’s final drive opened with a pass. Once again he motioned Robinson out to his right, only this time he threw it to him. The play went for 4 yards, but a defender roughed up McCaffrey and then another Hoosier threw Robinson down after he was already out of bounds. The two penalties tacked on 30 yards.
Nebraska kept it on the ground the rest of the drive and Robinson finished it off with a 4-yard touchdown run to make it a one-score game. McCaffrey came up limping after one of his runs, however, and didn’t return to the field for the final drive.
McCaffrey’s next action came in garbage time against Maryland a month later. He entered the game with the Huskers up 44-0 near the end of the third quarter.
His first drive started at the Maryland 45-yard line, and after four runs Nebraska had first-and-goal from the 6. Nebraska had Chris Hickman––who played a lot of wideout in addition to a bit of H-back and tight end in the game––split out to the short side of the field.
McCaffrey took the snap and dropped back in the pocket with Hickman as his first (and only) read.
The freshman receiver got locked up with his defender, but McCaffrey threw the ball anyway. Hickman continued to grapple with his defender all the way into the end zone, but McCaffrey’s pass was well behind him and hit the ground a yard or two in front of his feet as he turned around to fight back toward it.
I’m not sure what exactly the plan was on this play, but it seems clear Hickman and McCaffrey weren’t on the same page.
McCaffrey ran the ball on the next two plays but got stopped a yard short on third down, leading to a field goal.
McCaffrey started his next drive with another simple throw. On first down, he motioned Jaron Woodyard from right to left and tossed it to him behind the line of scrimmage for a receiver screen. Woodyard picked up 7 yards.
After three straight runs, Nebraska sent Woodyard on a jet motion and McCaffrey shoveled it forward to him, which technically counts as a pass. Woodyard lost 3 yards on the play, setting up third-and-5.
Frost called a real pass play, rolling McCaffrey out to his left once again. He threw it to Hickman at the line to gain, but the freshman dropped a pretty catchable pass, setting up fourth-and-5.
Nebraska went for it and moved the chains, then kept the ball on the ground the rest of the way, finishing it off with a quarterback keeper for 3 yards into the end zone.
McCaffrey got just two snaps against Iowa and managed to hang six points on the board with one of them.
On second-and-10 at the Iowa 39 with Nebraska down 24-10 midway through the third quarter, Frost sent his freshman out there for one play.
Once again, he called a rollout to McCaffrey’s left. He didn’t take the time to set his feet this time, but he didn’t need to.
Nebraska’s route concept and JD Spielman’s speed resulted in a lot of separation for the dynamic receiver, giving McCaffrey a big window.
McCaffrey hit Spielman in stride and the receiver ran it in for the touchdown to cut the deficit in half.
When Nebraska’s offense returned to the field, it was Martinez who led the Huskers back out there, to the dismay of quite a few fans. However, I feel pretty confident that Martinez could have completed the same pass McCaffrey did had Frost left him out there. It was a brilliant play call and terrific execution by the players, but it wasn’t some super-human play by McCaffrey.
Frost called his name again in the fourth quarter and again sent him on a rollout to his left. McCaffrey tucked the ball away and ran, picking up an 4 yards on a broken play. An illegal block by Mike Williams at the very end moved the Huskers back 15 yards, however, and Martinez got the rest of the snaps.
So, to reiterate, McCaffrey threw 11 passes from the quarterback position as a true freshman. Three of those passes were on rollouts, two were behind the line of scrimmage out wide, two were running back screens, two were improvisational plays, one was a one-foot shovel pass and just one of them was a downfield pass from the pocket (which fell incomplete).
McCaffrey was dynamic as a runner, carrying the ball on nearly half of his snaps and averaging close to 7 yards per carry. He was efficient with his pass attempts as well and put most of them on the money. However, the sample size is so small and I didn’t see anything showing that McCaffrey can stand in the pocket and consistently make reads and complete passes.
McCaffrey has the tools to become a very good football player, and he earned rave reviews from quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco regarding his understanding of the offense and mastery of the playbook. But I’m just not convinced by his tape that he’s capable of running Nebraska’s whole offense as a starting quarterback at this stage in his development.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.