Not Too Low
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Not Too Low, Not Too High, But Still Some Fire: Adrian Martinez’s Balancing Act

November 23, 2019

There are 14 minutes left, Nebraska is at Purdue’s 25-yard-line facing second-and-6 and Adrian Martinez takes the snap from an empty set.

The Huskers are down by four.

Field side is overloaded. Freshman wideout Wan’Dale Robinson bubbles out to the boundary. Junior JD Spielman starts to make his way toward the corner pylon, then cuts back toward the post. He takes the deep safety. Jack Stoll is open over the middle, tucked in between the zones. A walk-in touchdown if the ball finds him. Martinez is looking to the boundary first, then to Spielman. By the time he makes his way to Stoll and fires, the ball is behind the big tight end.

He puts both his hands to his head and squats down.

A season of “missed ones.” Boiled down to one, emblematic play.

Martinez feels the weight. Nebraska entered the season as a media darling, as a ranked team, as the favorite to win the West. UCF’s Year 2 explosion was, at the very least, expected to be slightly visible in Nebraska’s Year 2 climb back to relevance. Martinez, a Heisman hopeful, was the foundation upon which all that hope was built.

This season his completion percentage has dipped below 60%, he’s thrown just eight touchdowns after 17 as a freshman, thrown seven interceptions in eight games, and seen his rushing efficiency drop.

“I think his issue was just that he was trying to be perfect on everything he was doing,” quarterback coach Mario Verduzco said this week.

Nebraska hasn’t been Nebraska because Martinez hasn’t been Martinez. While there’s truth in there, it’s a massive oversimplification and it runs counter to every tenet Verduzco teaches his quarterbacks. They are a cog in the wheel of success. Football is the greatest team game there is, Verduzco’s says, and yet the success or failure of a team is laid at the feet of one player.

Don’t get too low. Don’t get too high.

Scott Frost knows the burden. He knows, fair or not, and especially so at Nebraska, the quarterback is the target for criticism when things are going poorly and showered with adulation when things turn. Praise and blame are all the same, he tells his team.

Verduzco wants his room playing emotionless. Just do your job. Thirty-yard completion down the seam? Don’t get too worked up, you’ve done your job. Interception? Don’t hang your head, just come back and don’t make the same mistake again.

“Let’s just stay level-headed and do whatever we can to make sure we’re doing our job,” Verduzco says. “Because within the framework of a particular play, if there’s an issue, let’s not make a bad play worse. Don’t make anything worse than it needs to be. Just do our job. As soon as he starts pressing, that’s when it goes wrong.”

The coach can appreciate the pursuit of perfection, “the reach for excellence and all that craziness,” but it has had an adverse effect this year. There is no such thing as a 30-point touchdown throw that can decompress all that angst.

Nebraska’s sophomore quarterback is, and has been for most of his playing days, level-headed. He considers himself even-keeled and he would like to say he’s been that way for a hot minute. He wants his teammates to look to him in the crucible and see steadiness.

Two common criticisms this season: “He’s not decisive enough,” and “He needs to play angry.” Both stem from the same prevailing notion that Martinez is holding something back. The individual solutions have some overlap, I think.

“I just remind him, and so did Coach Frost, [who has] talked to him a couple times, just play,” Verudzco says. “Just go out and play. You know what you’re doing, just play, have some fun.”

(“Crucible” used two grafs above “fun.” Such is football.)

There’s a delicate balance in Verduzco’s room. Play free of emotion when things go wrong, play free of overconfidence when things go right, but don’t hamstring your own personality as a quarterback.

“This is what I tell the guys: Play the game within the framework of your own personality, but at the same time don’t get too high and don’t get too low,” Verduzco says. “Coach Frost wants our guys—and I want them—to play the game within the framework of their personality. If they’re excitable guys, yeah man, absolutely, but at the same time, let’s just make sure we don’t let XYZ play have an impact that’s going to sap our attention from the job at hand. That’s the most important thing.”

In other words, when you got it, let it rip.

Verduzco likens the discussion to former 49ers quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Joe Montana. “Both tremendous players, but different cats.”

The “get angry” crowd really just wants any emotion beyond the even-keeled demeanor Martinez has when he plops down on the bench between drives, phone in hand, talking things over with Verduzco. (The sophomore is really good on the phones.)

In that vein, consider another play: third-and-6 from the Purdue 25-yard-line, just under four minutes to play, and Nebraska is down four. Martinez has an option from a split backfield, Robinson to his right, Spielman to his left. Martinez reads the end and pulls the ball from Robinson’s belly as Spielman starts to make his way around.

“That was a play I could have pitched it also but I decided to just go ahead and take off and go get yards,” Martinez said. There is absolutely no hesitation on the replay. And he could have pitched the ball. Instead, he knifes upfield and rather than run out of bounds, he barrels into two Purdue defenders and falls forward.

He pumps his fist as he gets back to his feet, then emphatically extends his arm forward. He needed six and got 21. Emotion came out.

“It was a big moment in the game and I was fired up,” he says. “I feel like when that happens it’s always kind of a good thing for me but also good for the team to see we’re fired up, we’re into it, we’re fighting.”

The next question in the sequence is to find out whether that’s something he’s working on balancing more. Does the coaching staff want that from him earlier? Does it take being down late to get the personality or can that be the way he plays on play No. 1? Without even allowing time for the follow-up, Martinez says all he needs to.

“I feel like I also brought that right out the gate against Wisconsin,” he says. “It’s something I think I need to continue to bring.”

He runs over two Badger defenders on his way into the end zone in the second quarter two weekends after Purdue. An upset-minded Nebraska goes up 14-10. Martinez believes he can play emotionless and still play with fire.

“There can be moments that require some fire and some passion beyond just being collected the entire time,” he says. “That might be something…”—he stops and restarts—“Well, that is something I’ve learned this season.”

He doesn’t have conversations with Frost about balancing the two. Frost trusts him with a little bit of autonomy now and again.

“He’s getting healthier, that’s going to help,” Frost says when asked about the open to the Wisconsin game, “but that’s the kind of Adrian that we expect.”

Just like a shooter in basketball who sees his first shot attempt go in and feels a surge of confidence as the basket starts to look like a pool, a quarterback, Frost says, needs a completion early. With guys who run, they need something designed for them early.

“Getting them hit once helps, too,” Frost says. “Adrian’s probably like that in both counts and we’ve got to get him off to a good start.”

Part of lighting the fire is providing the match. Martinez had a designed run called for him on the first play of the game against Wisconsin.

The rest is him. It’s easy to forget he’s still just a sophomore at the end of the day. This is a maturation process, and it can’t be completed overnight. But Nebraska’s quarterback seems like he’s starting to let things rip a little more.

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