Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Scoring the 2021 Huskers: Quarterbacks

January 26, 2021

For two years running now, we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Wideouts | Tight Ends | Running Backs | Offensive Line

We close out the offensive side of the ball with. . .

Quarterbacks

Returning: Logan Smothers (2Y FR), Adrian Martinez (4Y JR)

Incoming: Heinrich Haarberg (FR)

 Adrian MartinezLuke McCaffrey
QBR75.6not qualified
Compl %71.5% (108/151)63.2% (48/76)
Pass Yds1055466
Yds/Att7.06.1
Rush Yds521364
Yds/Carry5.75.6
Big Plays (Pass/Rush)35 (14/21)20 (4/16)
TDs (Pass/Rush)11 (4/7)4 (1/3)
TOVs (INTs/FUMs)8 (3/5)8 (6/2)

*Big plays: 10-yard runs, 20-yard passes
** Italicized names signal players who aren’t returning in 2021

Well. I saved these guys for the end for a reason. I—and I’m sure many of you are in the same boat—have no idea what to think of the quarterbacks. Aside from the “they regressed” mob shouting with clenched fists, I think there are a great number of people who watched this team in 2020 and were left scratching their heads. 

I don’t think there was regression. I think there was probably idling. Plateauing? That’ll depend on what Adrian Martinez looks like in November of this year. But what I wrote in the 2020 preseason is something I still believe—there’s a good quarterback in there who needs the right system.

Perhaps a system structured similar to the gameplan deployed against Rutgers is the “right system.” After all, Martinez. . . wait let’s not go there yet. 

Overall, it seemed like the good wasn’t enough to outweigh the bad. To what extent they did their job, I think the only ones who can really and accurately answer that question are the folks who assign them those jobs. What the Nebraska quarterbacks are taught is nuanced. If I could assess that I’d be coaching them instead of writing about them.  

They didn’t play well enough to win. Case closed. Period. Each of them will tell you the same thing. Luke McCaffrey had a chance to go tie the game up against Northwestern and force overtime and he threw incomplete aiming for Wan’Dale Robinson in the end zone. Adrian Martinez had a chance to go win the Iowa game and he turned the ball over. 

If Nebraska is to contend for Big Ten West crowns and somehow bridge what’s looking like a vast gulf between itself and the conference’s best, the quarterback has to be better. He’s not the only one, of course, but he’s an important one. Head coach Scott Frost would tell you the same. 

Better, of course, is highly subjective. 

This past season, Martinez set a program record for completion rate over the course of a season. His 71.5% clip was the fourth-highest among qualified quarterbacks across the country. A sub-60% passer as a sophomore, many looked at that area and hoped for improvement. Martinez delivered. 

In terms of QBR, Martinez’s 75.6 rating ranked 25th nationally and second in the Big Ten. ESPN’s proprietary tool is an efficiency stat, not a value stat, so a risk-averse quarterback would tend to fare well operating the way Martinez operated in 2020, particularly the back half. QBR also portends that a team would win 75.6% of its games with Martinez’s 2020 play. We know that wasn’t the case. 

The efficiency was there all season. Martinez, when on schedule, was highly effective at moving Nebraska’s offense down the field. So was McCaffrey. When Nebraska fell off-schedule is when things went awry. Sort of sums up The Martinez Experience so far, when he starts to press, everyone is living on the edge of their seat.

Where the quarterbacks largely came up short last season is in the value-added department. 

Against Rutgers, Martinez threw for 255 yards and ran for another 157. The offense as a whole ate up 620 yards on the day, but all it led to was 28 points. It was the fourth time in three years under Frost that the Husker offense had eclipsed the 500-yard mark but been held under the 30-point mark. That’s happened at Ohio State, for example, four times since the turn of the century. 

Nebraska’s quarterback production seemed like a lot of empty calories. 

The run would too often come at the expense of a bigger play downfield from both guys. Frost recently told local newspapers “we need to do less of that” when it comes to quarterback runs. Factoring out sacks and kneel-downs (which aren’t credited to individual players in the first place but just in case anyone was wondering), the quarterbacks averaged 14.9 runs a game in eight games.  

Those are designed runs lumped in with scrambles lumped in with RPO decisions made by either Martinez or McCaffrey based on what the defense presented them with. Sometimes the number was tiny (12 against Penn State) and sometimes the number was huge (25 against Illinois a week later). Considering the Husker offense’s optionality, that’s probably going to fluctuate normally, though maybe to a lesser degree. 

Still, Frost is right. Less running of the ‘cubes might be better for the overall offense. Especially if they’re not going to be hit in practice—read: not practice how to brace for a hit. Nebraska’s fumble numbers are remarkable under Frost.

Receivers were open in opposing secondaries more often than in 2019, but McCaffrey and Martinez were both trigger-happy when it came to escaping the pocket. It looked to a layman like there was more personal trust in the legs than the arm. 

Martinez ranked 11th in the Big Ten among starting quarterbacks in 10-yard completions. In seven games, he had only two more 20-yard completions than Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell had in three. As a function of throws attempted, Martinez’s passes gained 10 yards 25.8% of the time, the third-worst rate among the 14 Big Ten quarterbacks to throw at least 100 times.

McCaffrey traded the steadiness Martinez operated with for an all-or-nothing game. Twenty-two of his 76 passes gained at least 10 yards, but only four broke for 20 and he was throwing interceptions every 13th pass attempt. The last plays of McCaffrey’s season came in spot relief for Martinez against Minnesota; on his first play he was nearly picked off, and on his second he was actually picked off.

It just wasn’t there. 

(Of the 18 passes thrown by Nebraska quarterbacks in 2020 that gained at least 20 yards, Wan’Dale Robinson was on the receiving end of seven of them. Tight end Austin Allen had five. No one else had multiple.)

Can Nebraska just flip the script and be a vertical shot team in 2021? It’s possible. The wideout group is intriguing, however unproven. But the quarterback has to throw catchable balls, and neither of the guys who played in 2020 were consistently accurate throwing deep. 

So what do you do? The clear choice between the two experienced guys is Martinez. Though Frost says McCaffrey is the future, nothing about his past play as a thrower provides any evidence he can pilot a spread offense at a high enough level yet. Martinez at least provides a baseline, and if he can cut out the fumbles, he’s actually providing a pretty high floor. 

There isn’t a ton of pre-snap adjusting that is done at the line of scrimmage, and Martinez has shown growth in reading and properly reacting to what he’s presented with. If quarterback coach Mario Verduzco can continue to make progress in the decision-making department, perhaps Martinez isn’t the big-play bomber past Frost pupils were but instead a game-manager with dynamic legs. That’s a big if, but it could work. Particularly if the defense keeps its trajectory.

If the turnovers can’t be erased, if the accuracy was a blip rather than a growth point, then what happens? Logan Smothers is a pretty nice “break in case of emergency” guy. 

Considering the first three years have brought about a 12-20 record and the defense is most certainly not the primary culprit for that (at least not of late), there’s no reason to not take long, hard looks at every quarterback in spring ball. 

Smothers is tough, he’s fast, he’s accurate, and he’s a quick decision-maker. If the first two quarterbacks Nebraska recruited are runners who can throw, the last two have been throwers who can run. Smothers shouldn’t be overlooked. Neither should incoming freshman Heinrich Haarberg.

Both are guys who could just as easily play early in their careers. Either youngster can keep plays alive and deliver on the money. Haarberg is big with a rocket arm. I watched him make throws you just don’t see often. And the stigma surrounding young quarterbacks is mostly gone. Don’t discount the freshmen, anyone can take the job. 

Say Smothers sets spring on fire. Say Haarberg is just the best passer of the group. Say Martinez puts the position in a stranglehold. Lots of things could happen and very few would come as legitimate shocks. 

Can Nebraska get better quarterback play from the group it has currently? Absolutely. Will it? We’ll see.

Score: 6/10

UPDATE (Jan. 26, 11:00 a.m.): McCaffrey has put his name in the transfer portal. He won’t be around for the spring. The Huskers will have three scholarship quarterbacks in Martinez, Smothers, and Haarberg.

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