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Padding the Stats: Parsing Quotes and Nebraska’s QB Competition

October 14, 2020

Parsing a coach’s quotes from a press conference is a good way to drive oneself crazy, and I’ve been doing far too much of it lately.

Most press conferences are a mix of honest and open evaluation, attempts to control a narrative, sending a message or dodging a question altogether. The trick is trying to identify which quotes belong in each of those categories.

I say all this to explain that I really have no idea what to make of Nebraska’s quarterback situation, which isn’t normally the case when a team has a signal-caller returning with 21 starts under his belt.

Adrian Martinez arrived in Lincoln after a standout career at Clovis West High School in Fresno, California, though an injury cost him his senior season. He immediately entered a quarterback competition with Mike Riley holdovers Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia, and despite not playing football (outside of one all-star game) in over a year, he won that battle. O’Brien and Gebbia both transferred out before the season began.

At the time, I thought Gebbia would at least open the season as the starter while Nebraska took it slow with Martinez. Instead, Frost turned the reins over to his hand-picked recruit and Martinez had a terrific freshman year. 

However, Martinez failed to take the step forward many expected last season, and now he finds himself in the middle of another battle for the starting job with redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, one that seems to be neck-and-neck based on Frost’s most recent comments.

At the start of the spring, Frost said Martinez was working with the ones, though he maintained there would be a competition for the job just like every other position. A couple weeks ago, new offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Matt Lubick confirmed that Martinez was the No. 1 quarterback, though there was a “friendly competition” going on and McCaffrey was getting some snaps with the No. 1 offense as well.

Last week, however, quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco was much more coy about the hierarchy. At the time, I thought maybe he was just deferring to Frost on matters of personnel as he often does. Then Frost spoke on Tuesday, and he said that picture is still coming into focus.

“I wouldn’t say it’s clear yet,” Frost said. “Adrian is certainly playing well. Luke is certainly playing well. We feel like we have two guys at the top of that heap that are playing well enough to help us win games. Every position is a competition and we're going to have to make those decisions pretty quickly, but I've been really impressed with both of them.”

Well then. The fact that a two-year starter apparently hasn’t separated himself from a redshirt freshman with four games under his belt probably isn’t a great sign, unless that freshman is truly something special. Later, when asked about McCaffrey potentially contributing in other ways if he didn’t win the starting job, Frost responded with another bit of pointed praise.

“I want to be clear that he is a quarterback and right now our offense moves exceptionally well when he's at quarterback,” Frost said.

Interesting. (I’ll get to why this particular line stood out to me so much soon.)

Martinez has thrown 598 passes in a Husker uniform. McCaffrey attempted more throws in Nebraska’s 2019 Red-White Spring Game (he was 3-of-13 passing for 14 yards and an interception between stints with both the Red and White teams) than he did all of last year in the games that actually counted. McCaffrey certainly showed flashes of brilliance with some big plays on the ground and through the air (both as a passer and as a receiver). He completed nine of his 12 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

But when I went back and watched all of his snaps from last season for a film study piece, I came away both impressed by the talent and unsure of his readiness to be a full-time starting quarterback. McCaffrey attempted one downfield pass from the pocket all year, and it fell incomplete. Everything else was a high-percentage quick hitter or designed rollout. Verduzco praised McCaffrey for how quickly he learned the playbook after he arrived in Lincoln, but he certainly didn’t show the ability to execute the whole thing in the brief opportunities the coaches gave him.

If McCaffrey is running the whole playbook, making reads and getting the ball where it needs to go, then that certainly changes things in my mind. That’s why the comment about the offense moving “exceptionally well” with McCaffrey under center was noteworthy to me.

The other side of this equation is Martinez. He completed nearly 65% of his passes as a freshman, throwing for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He scored eight more touchdowns on the ground, rushing for 629 yards at 4.5 yards a pop. He set multiple school records and was named a freshman All-American. By every estimation, he had a terrific year for a true freshman.

But the impressive part about Martinez doing what he did at that age is what it implied — that if he could accomplish this as a freshman (after missing his senior year to boot), how much better could he get? How high was his ceiling?

That’s why his sophomore year was so disappointing. His completion percentage dropped below 60%, he failed to crack the 2,000-yard barrier and he only threw 10 touchdown passes with nine interceptions in 10 games. He was slightly less effective as a runner too. Hardly the leap many of us were expecting. 

Granted, there were certainly some extenuating circumstances with a pass-catching group that lacked diversity of body type and skill set, struggles by his offensive line and a mysterious injury for which he had offseason surgery. But Martinez left too many plays out there on the field that had nothing to do with his injury or his receivers not getting open.

Martinez has displayed his incredible talent on numerous occasions, and because of that I’ve been giving him the benefit of the doubt. He should be healthy heading into this season and Nebraska appeared to have upgraded the pieces around him (though the wide receiver situation sounds a bit scary at the moment). Defense caught up to him last year, and now it’s his turn to respond and figure out how to make better reads and decisions.

As mobile as Martinez is, I’d have to give McCaffrey the edge as a runner (he averaged 6.9 yards per attempt on 24 carries last season and is one of the fastest players on the team). If Martinez hasn’t progressed significantly in his ability to read defenses and make the correct throws on time and on target, and if McCaffrey’s shown the coaches he’s at least on par with Martinez in that area, we could be looking at a new starting quarterback. We know Frost isn’t afraid of making the bold move and rolling with a young guy in a key position if he thinks the player is special (see Martinez in 2018 or Cameron Jurgens last year).

I still think Martinez will ultimately trot out there for the first snap against Ohio State on Nov. 24, but my confidence in that prediction has dropped significantly over the last week or two.

So what do Frost’s quotes mean? Is he simply trying to appease McCaffrey with his public praise? Is he trying to keep Ohio State’s defensive coaches guessing? Is he trying to send a message to Martinez?

I’m going crazy thinking about it. The season-opener can’t get here soon enough.

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