In June, Husker head football coach Scott Frost told the two local papers he thought quarterback Adrian Martinez didn’t have the same kind of fire in his approach to his sophomore season as he did to his freshman campaign.
Martinez was fighting with Tristan Gebbia for the job as a true freshman in 2018, and coming off a shoulder injury that had cost him his senior year of high school ball. Martinez won the job outright in camp and Gebbia departed for Oregon State.
That first year was electric.
A freshman All-American, Martinez became the first quarterback in school history to start a season opener as a true freshman. He set a school record for total offense with 295.1 yards a game, a mark good for 12th nationally and first among freshmen. It was also the third-best season average by a true freshman in NCAA history. He completed 64.6% of his passes for 2,617 yards, ranking second in school history in completion percentage. Martinez also rushed for 629 yards, the fourth-highest rushing total of any true freshman in school history.
His sophomore season featured a dip across the board. Martinez’s efficiency wasn’t the same (his completion rate dropped below 60%), his production dropped off, and his confidence waned.
Martinez entered the 2019 season the unquestioned starter at quarterback, even despite the presence of a more-than-ready Noah Vedral and highly-touted freshman Luke McCaffrey.
“Year two, I think because of the situation, he was able to put it in cruise control a little,” Frost said. “That’s not to put everything on him … but I don’t think he’ll be lax in his preparation ever again.”
Martinez’s position coach, Mario Verduzco, in speaking on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show Thursday night didn’t directly refute Frost’s assessment, but he said he didn’t have any “qualms” with the way Martinez had prepared himself for the season.
“I don’t know that I would say Adrian was not prepared,” Verduzco said. “I think maybe he probably took things maybe a little too lightly sometimes as it relates to practice when we started fall camp. I mean, he still worked hard and did all those sorts of things, but whether he had as much of a consequential attitude about things as he did his freshman [year], I guess that would be up for debate. But, every time I tested him, either before the season with the playbook test and/or every game from a cognitive standpoint he was ready to go. I had no qualms about that piece of the puzzle.”
The common refrain has been to label Martinez’s second year a sophomore slump.
“I’ll always say this about that particular comment: a quarterback’s only going to be as good as the guys around him from a functional standpoint,” Verduzco added. “There’s no doubt about that. You can make the goofy analogies about putting a junior college offensive line in front of Tom Brady and how good is Tom Brady going to be? Put a junior college defense with Tom Brady and how many games are they gonna win? You know? So all of those things that have to do with a quarterback’s ‘winning record’ and/or his success are dependent on the guys around him. Now, the quarterback has to make sure he’s doing his job and getting his work done, that sort of thing.
“With regards to his mental part of it, psychological part of it, I thought he handled himself extremely well, particularly when you consider the amount of hype that surrounded him that he never asked for. When things don’t turn out exactly like you would like them to, some young guys can really get shattered by it. It’s my opinion he did not. He battled through it like a warrior.”
Even when Martinez missed time—he sat out the Minnesota and Indiana games after suffering an injury against Northwestern on Oct. 5—Verduzco thought he was locked in to help the team.
“He was just like any of the other guys were with him,” Verduzco said. “Always came into the room with a great attitude, had a great attitude in practice, very helpful, was trying to do as much as he possibly can to ensure we could enjoy some success that particular week. He was fine. Now, obviously, you could always sense that little bit of disappointment in him that he wasn’t able to play, but he was good.”
Losing can be hard. Martinez has gone through both a 4-8 campaign and a 5-7 one that failed to live up to preseason expectations. Nebraska’s coaching staff likes where the junior-to-be quarterback is at from a mental standpoint at the dawn of a new season.
Martinez will begin his third fall camp in Lincoln on Friday.
Other News and Notes
>> Martinez’s primary challenger this offseason will be McCaffrey, now a redshirt freshman. Verduzco called the Colorado native with the royal name “hell on wheels.”
McCaffrey’s brother, Dylan, might yet win the starting quarterback job at Michigan. Christian is one of the NFL’s brightest stars. Luke—or as Verduzco referred to him on several occasions, Lucas—is looking to make his mark in Lincoln.
“Lucas is just a bright young cat who has a tremendous work ethic,” Verduzco said. “So, he’s done real well in the offseason. Cleaned some things up with his stroke that we’d been working on since he arrived. That’s getting better and better and better. The little bit that we were able to work together those couple days in spring ball I was pleased at his development with regards to at least his stroke.”
No mention of a possible receiver role this year, but Verduzco did say McCaffrey was just excited for whatever reps he got a season ago. A handful of those were at receiver when Nebraska was short on bodies late in the year.
“Hell, he was ready to do it, he was prepared to do it, he knew all the routes, he knew all the combinations, he knew all the blocking patterns and so on and so forth,” Verduzco said. “There are a few things he wasn’t really detailed in but for the most part he was good to go. And I told Coach Frost, ‘Hey coach, if you need any of these guys to play receiver they’ll do it for you.’”
Will they? Sounds like a yes. Should they? Well…
>> The third and final scholarship “cubez’ on the roster is Logan Smothers. Verduzco called him a “10.7, 10.8” kind of runner (numbers from his junior track season, Smothers was a mid-year enrollee at UNL) who can get up and go.
“He’s extremely athletic, fast, had some stroke issues we need to get taken care of, he’s been working on those since when he arrived,” Verduzco said. “The couple days of practice that we were able to have I was really pleased with his progress in terms of getting that cleaned up.
“I gave him a couple preliminary playbook tests and he tore those apart. His work ethic is intact with regards to him doing the things that are necessary to at least give his teammates a chance to be successful by his play and making sure he does his job.”
>> On his two walk-on quarterbacks, Matt Masker and Brayden Miller, Verduzco categorized them as strong-armed and tough, adding that they’ve done a nice job this offseason keeping themselves prepared to hit the ground running once fall camp begins.
“Both those guys are just your typical tough-ass, Nebraska, Midwest kind of guys,” he said. “Both are really fine quarterbacks in their own right.”