With spring ball now in the rear mirror, the Huskers transition to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months as players finish up finals and catch a few weeks rest.
With coaching limited in the summer, many Husker players will have to take it upon themselves to keep whatever momentum they’ve gained this spring heading into fall camp. With the Huskers’ season beginning on Aug. 28, the start of fall camp is just about three months away.
This can be a big summer for some, even a crucial period for others, and a time to recover for guys who made waves in spring. So we’re going to take stock of each position room as Nebraska exits spring, highlighting who is where, who is trending up, and any questions remaining.
Projected starter on Aug. 28: Adrian Martinez
Martinez slimmed down this spring. The California native said he felt a step faster, and coaches said Martinez looked more at ease on and off the field, more at peace. Certainly in the Huskers’ May 1 spring game, Martinez looked to have a pep in his step reminiscent of his true freshman season in 2018.
It should have come as no surprise then to see Martinez’s pro agility time—3.83 seconds, the third-best mark on the team.
“When he takes off with it right now, he looks like a 4.4 guy, like a guy that can really run and be a weapon,” said head coach Scott Frost early on.
Teammates this spring said Martinez was throwing with a touch more zip on his passes. Coaches said NU was emphasizing the vertical passing game and connecting on more deep shots than they have in previous camps because, as offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said, “when he has to put touch on the ball, he’s putting touch on the ball.”
“He’s taken it (to) another level from a leadership standpoint and an accuracy standpoint, and I even think from a fitness standpoint,” Lubick continued. “He’s throwing balls on time. He’s really making the receivers and tight ends look good because he’s putting the ball where it’s supposed to be on a consistent basis.”
Consider that Martinez set a program record a season ago for season-long completion percentage, connecting on 71.5% of his pass attempts. The caveat that comes with that, though, is that among qualified passers, Martinez’s yards per pass attempt average was tied for 70th nationally.
Improvement from an accuracy standpoint is always welcome, but perhaps Nebraska fans are hoping for better ball placement on attempts that travel beyond the first down marker in 2021. And to Martinez’s credit, it seems he’s made progress in that arena.
In the May 1 spring game, Nebraska took shots. Martinez, working with a stiff wind on the day, threw a nice ball to Omar Manning on a post route that was dropped. The public saw bits and pieces of the picture Nebraska coaches got during the full 15-practice period, and the coaches seem pleased.
“He’s had a really good spring,” Frost said. “(Martinez) has enough talent to make every play you want a quarterback to make. He’s done a good job eliminating mistakes this spring.
“If he can get through games and just be who he is and not have the three or four bad plays that hurt you, he has a chance to accomplish whatever he wants to. We’re going to keep working with him hard and I’m really excited about where he is right now.”
Quarterback coach Mario Verduzco preaches to his quarterbacks that, no, they are not the single most important person on the field during any given game, but rather a “cog in the wheel of success.” Just do your job, he implores them. For Martinez, that job is putting the ball where it’s supposed to be and not giving it away.
Sure, he needs help from his offensive line—relatively high sack rate on standard downs in 2020—and more consistency from his pass-catchers in terms of availability. But major improvement for Nebraska’s offense in 2021 will likely have to come in the vertical passing game, and Martinez will need to be able to consistently make plays when presented the opportunity.
That was something he didn’t do last season. Nebraska posted an explosive play rate of just 7.9%—the 98th-best mark in college football (some label 15-plus-yard plays as “explosive,” I’m using 20 and up)—and averaged a point every 17 yards, which is to say that Nebraska had to sustain long possessions to reach the end zone. Its average was the 114th-best mark in the country.
As Verduzco says, lots of factors at play, but improved play from Martinez can go a long way. According to ESPN’s expected points added formula (which is weighted for situation), Martinez was the most impactful runner among Big Ten quarterbacks a season ago but only the ninth-most impactful passer. Amongst all qualified quarterbacks who played, Martinez’s 20.4 expected points added as a rusher ranked ninth and his 17.5 points added as a passer ranked 80th.
With a lot of this Husker passing game, real improvement might not be discernible until the fall when they have to line up against other defenses and prove it’s for real, but for what they were able to get done in the spring, Nebraska seems happy with the trajectory Martinez is on.
Quotable: “No more freakin’ turnovers. That’s it. Just gotta take care of the damn football. Seriously. Coach Frost mentioned (it), the Rutgers game was probably the worst game and the best game I’ve ever seen. Eliminate the turnovers, take care of the football, and if he truly cares about his teammates like I know he does—evidenced by his behavior in the Penn State game—then take care of the ball. Those guys on defense don’t want to see turnovers. I don’t want to see turnovers. Coach Frost absolutely does not want to see turnovers.
Martinez fumbled twice on the Huskers’ opening possession that day against Rutgers, losing the final one. It was the precursor to a game that would see Nebraska fumble five times in total (losing two of them) and throw a pair of interceptions. On the flip side, Martinez missed only two of his 26 other pass attempts. He threw for 255 yards and a score and rushed for another 157 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. Nebraska outgained Rutgers 365-59 in the second half and outscored it 21-7 to leave with a 28-21 win.
The good and the bad.
Verduzco and Frost have worked with Martinez this offseason on eating broken plays before they become harmful plays.
“I know he’s playing hard, I know he wants to make plays, I know he wants to do the right thing, but there comes a point where that sort of extra effort gets you in trouble,” Verduzco said. “Let the defense do their job. The defense is gonna win one now and again. Not every play is going to be a touchdown pass or an 80-yard run or whatever. Just take care of the ball and be judicious.”
Martinez has fumbled the ball 27 times in his career and lost 15 of them. Given the rushing workload, that’s about a fumble every 14th carry.
“Turnovers have been a problem,” Martinez said after the spring game. “It’s definitely been a point of emphasis this spring for us.”
- Heinrich Haarberg (first-year freshman): Verduzco said Haarberg’s mechanics were “pretty clean” when he showed up on campus. A 6-foot-5 pure passer from Kearney, Nebraska, Haarberg showed up to low expectations and the surprised many in the room. “He made a few throws during the spring that everybody kinda turned and looked at each other,” Frost said. “I think if I threw it like him I probably wouldn’t be a coach right now because I’d have had a career as a player, so I’m a little bit jealous of his arm strength and his ability to rip it.” Haarberg throws with good anticipation and can reach just about anywhere on the field he needs to. The “raw material” is there, as Frost said. The biggest thing for the freshman is just learning the offense to the point he can operate quickly and confidently. But, it’s probably fair to say that Haarberg’s immediate ability and Logan Smothers’ progress kept Nebraska from looking into the transfer portal for another quarterback. That No. 2 battle projects as an interesting one in fall camp.
Nebraska will go as far as its offense takes it in 2021. The defense was significantly improved in 2020, but the offense struggled to average more than three touchdowns a game and the Huskers fell to 3-5 because of it. The defense could be even better in 2021, but Nebraska needs its offense to finally catch fire. In order to do that, it needs a passing game that threatens opponents. The receiving weapons seem to be there and the offensive line seems to be going in the right direction, so what kind of quarterback play does Nebraska get from Martinez in the fall? A slimmer, quicker quarterback helps, but in the context of wins and losses, Martinez’s arm is going to matter more than his legs. Will the bad decisions and missed opportunities persist? Or will Martinez be more of the quarterback Husker coaches believe he can be? Spring was a nice step in that nothing alarming came out of it, but these questions can’t really be answered until the bright lights come on again in the fall.
From our “Taking Stock” series so far: