Adrian Martinez runs with the ball at practice
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On Nebraska’s Quarterback Room, and What’s Pushing Adrian Martinez

October 08, 2020

A week ago, Husker offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said Adrian Martinez was the team’s starting quarterback. Luke McCaffrey, a redshirt freshman, is challenging the older and more-experienced Martinez in practice, but coaches have been careful to reveal just how much.

There’s an experience gap between the two—Martinez is a two-year starter and McCaffrey has played in four games and thrown 12 passes—but quarterback coach Mario Verduzco said that’s not “a huge factor” in deciding between the two.

Asked if there was anything McCaffrey does particularly well that has pushed Martinez, or if there’s anything Martinez does well that drives McCaffrey, Verduzco was short and to the point: “No. Not really. Very similar in a lot of ways in terms of their skill set.”

Asked about his thoughts on a two-quarterback system, he deferred to head coach Scott Frost. “That’s going to be ultimately Frost’s decision as it relates to how that’ll play out,” he said.

Asked if a scrimmage this Saturday would provide new data points in any decision-making process, should they need those sorts of things, Verduzco said perhaps. “It’ll be a factor,” he said. “but I don’t know if it’ll be the overall major factor.”

Nebraska’s not in a bad spot by any means, though the “if you have two, you have none” statement would imply otherwise.

Verduzco has two quarterbacks capable of playing and playing well, that much is true.

He also has two guys both itching to make statements.

One, Martinez, is hoping to show the larger college football public he’s not what he put on tape a season ago. The folks at Pro Football Focus ranked the junior as the 129th starting quarterback in the country out of 130 FBS guys. “I would say I’m feeling as good as I have in a while,” Martinez said Thursday. “I’m ready to get out there and show it.”

On the other side is McCaffrey, perhaps viewed by some more as a utility player or an athlete than a true quarterback. He was limited last year to a handful of pass attempts, most of them designed to put him on the move and shrink his input.

The intrigue is there, to use McCaffrey and Martinez on the field at the same time. As a freshman, McCaffrey lined up at wideout against Maryland.

If Martinez is the tried and true starter coming out of camp, Nebraska would have to find a way to utilize McCaffrey’s dynamic athleticism now that he’s no longer limited by a four-game redshirt rule, right?

“I certainly think when you have that availability it helps you,” Verduzco said when asked about their ability to use both guys.

Make no mistake, McCaffrey has pushed Martinez this offseason.

Regardless of whether the competition is “for show” or not, the Huskers stand to benefit from that.

McCaffrey says he’s up to 205 pounds. He wanted to add weight this offseason without compromising his speed. It’s that speed that has led Verduzco to dub the youngster “hell on wheels.”

Home throughout the prolonged offseason, the Colorado native got a summer experience he doesn’t normally get: all the McCaffrey brothers in one place at one time. Older brother Dylan, a former Michigan quarterback, and oldest brother Christian, arguably the best running back in the NFL, were around.

“I think before the shutdown and other things happened, we probably hadn’t been together as a family for any extended period of time in years, let alone months,” McCaffrey said. “From a development standpoint, it was huge just being able to see how my brother works. He’s the hardest-working person in America in my opinion. To be able to see that in action, live, one-on-one is something that’s huge for me personally.”

McCaffrey talked about stressing the details.

His mechanics have “come a long way” since arriving on campus. When asked where he saw McCaffrey grow the most, Verduzco said in his “stroke (and) thrust on the ball.” Little tweaks here and there have added up, McCaffrey noted, and the difference has been noticeable.

“He worked hard in the offseason and it’s showing up the way he’s flinging it around,” Verduzco said. “Some small issues, feet things, but nothing major. He’s cleaned those up. Do we have more work to do? Absolutely, so there’s still things we’re going on, but to answer your question, it’d probably be thrust on the ball in terms of his effectiveness and efficiency with it.”

Nebraska doesn’t subject its quarterbacks to hits during practice.

That piece of the equation is still a mystery until the games begin. Live reps, McCaffrey says, are crucial for that reason. Hard to simulate bracing yourself for a fall, where to hold the ball, how to land, etc., when you’re only being tagged off in practice instead of tackled.

Maybe this can be a positive for NU, though. Maybe.

Though changes to the offseason schedule have caused adjustments to Nebraska’s practice regiment, one thing has remained the same: don’t hit the quarterback. While the larger team had to readjust to pads after nearly a full calendar year without putting them on, little has changed for the quarterbacks.

There are minor adjustments, Martinez said, but nothing significant enough to make him or McCaffrey or others feel like they’re not ready for the season.

In the case of Martinez, he’s better for it. Healthier. Martinez has dealt with nagging injuries that have cost him games each of his first two years in Lincoln. In Year 1, the bruises came early. In Year 2, they came late. Martinez healed up this offseason.

Some note he looks slimmed down.

“I would just say I’m trying to work harder physically to get myself in the shape I know I need to be in,” he said when asked how his prep for this year might be different from years past.

“In addition to that, I’m trying to take each day and make the most out of it. Try and live in the present, try and make the most out of that practice and not look forward to two, three weeks from now, and if that means diving into practice tape more, I’m working on my game as much as I can.”

Trying to be more of a leader, he says. The little things are where he can grow. The details.

Which is where McCaffrey comes back in.

“Luke is a very talented player,” Martinez said. “I know he can be great for us at quarterback, running back, receiver, whatever the coaches decide they want to do, that’s what we’re going to do. If it’s going to help us win games, I’m for it.”

Martinez is 9-12 as a starter. In wins, he’s thrown 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions. In losses, he’s thrown 12 scores against 13 picks.

This year, he figures to have the best supporting cast he’s had so far at Nebraska. Lubick has appreciated the way the quarterbacks and pass-catchers have worked on their own to build chemistry during months where coaches had to be away.

Verduzco no doubt appreciates the mindset with which his quarterbacks have approached season prep.

Logan Smothers, a true freshman early-enrollee, is there if Nebraska needs to use him, aided by the NCAA’s freeze on eligibility. Walk-on Matt Masker has a cannon of an arm waiting in the wings. McCaffrey has repped with the 1s and the 2s in practice. Martinez has kept his nose to the grind.

“When I was recruited, I was told it’s an open competition, and that’s the case regardless of what year it is,” Martinez said. “The best quarterback’s going to play. Period.

“Luke’s been pushing me, and I love it. I’m here for the competition. He’s a talented guy. He gets after it, I get after it, and I think that’s definitely helped me progress as a player. It’s gotten some fire out of me and I think that’s great for both of us and it’s great for this team.”

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