For a fourth year, we’re counting down the 10 most intriguing Huskers. Earlier, I wrote about who would have earned spots 11-20 if the countdown was extended out and shared a look at the previous three groups of Huskers from 2018, ’19, and ’20.
The intent of this exercise is to highlight players who might have the largest impact on the upcoming season, one way or the other, with their play. It’s not a ranking of the best players on the team and it’s not even really a rundown of the most important players to accomplish X, Y, and Z. It’s as the name suggests: the most intriguing talents on the roster.
No. 6: Adrian Martinez
How about a little exercise first?
Here’s a list of the Big Ten’s 14 projected starting quarterbacks for this upcoming season: Brandon Peters (Illinois), Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana), Spencer Petras (Iowa), Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland), Cade McNamara (Michigan), Anthony Russo (Michigan State), Tanner Morgan (Minnesota), Adrian Martinez (Nebraska), Ryan Hilinski (Northwestern), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), Sean Clifford (Penn State), Jack Plummer (Purdue), Noah Vedral (Rutgers), Graham Mertz (Wisconsin).
Now rank those 14 quarterbacks.
Where does Martinez land in that ranking?
I’ll offer a little context.
Only Morgan, with his 29 games played, has more experience among the group than Martinez (28 games).
No one has produced more career yardage than Martinez’s 7,404.
No one has a higher career completion percentage than Martinez’s 64.2%.
No one has produced more total touchdowns than Martinez’s 53.
In terms of pure production, no one else in the Big Ten quarterback discussion can match what Martinez has on his resume.
The problem: Martinez has 27 fumbles (15 lost) and 20 interceptions. He’s averaging about 1.3 turnovers per game played for his career.
Since the 2020 season ended, coaches have pointed to the Rutgers game as the quintessential Martinez performance: he threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, but he completed 24 of his 28 passes for 255 yards, ran for another 157, and scored three touchdowns in a 28-21 comeback win.
“No more friggin’ turnovers. That’s it,” said quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco early in the spring. “He’s just got to take care of the damn football. Seriously.”
This spring, Martinez called his fourth year a “prove it” kind of season for himself personally and the Nebraska offense as a whole. Nebraska’s coaching staff believes that Martinez can be an all-conference level quarterback if the decision-making piece of his game improves.
But if you look at the team around Martinez, Nebraska might not need an all-conference quarterback to have a good season. Relative to the talent he’s had around him throughout his career, Martinez has never been in a better spot.
To this point, the Huskers have needed to rely on Martinez to bail them out. When the running game didn’t work, they turned to Martinez to carry that load. When the blocking wasn’t working… when the snaps weren’t on target… when the wideouts couldn’t stretch the field… and so on and so forth.
Nebraska’s defense last season proved it could carry the team for stretches, and that was in spite of constant turnovers and poor special teams play. Continued improvement on that side of the ball—which is expected—could give the Huskers something like a top-30 defense when it’s all said and done.
Martinez will have some talented receivers to throw the ball to. He might have a better offensive line to block for him. He needs one of the Husker running backs to pop. He might not need to be the best quarterback in the conference for Nebraska to win. A game manager sent Northwestern to the conference title game last season. A game manager in the right context can be a highly effective quarterback.
And as far as QBR is concerned, Martinez’s 2020 campaign was better than the 2018 one that saw him earn Freshman All-American honors; he was a top-25 quarterback. ESPN’s model estimated 30.2 points added by Martinez’s play as a junior—only Justin Fields had a higher EPA quotient.
But the usual talking point is that Martinez was great as a freshman and has yet to show progress from there.
In some ways that’s fair, in others it’s a bit misleading. In 2019, Martinez was good throwing deep and up the seam, but struggled on medium throws to either sideline. In 2020, Martinez was efficient on the close stuff but the downfield passing game was nonexistent.
You have to consider who he was throwing to in those situations, yes?
The splits are interesting. Martinez didn’t throw a first- or fourth-quarter interception last season, and his completion percentage was highest in those periods as well. In the fourth quarter, he averaged nearly 8 yards per pass attempt. On third-and-long plays (6 yards or more), he completed 70% of his throws with an average of 8 yards per.
This spring, Nebraska claimed it was more effective throwing the ball downfield in practice environments. Tweaks were made to Martinez’s progressions. Wideout Levi Falck said Martinez had more zip on his throws, and Martinez agreed his arm felt better. Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said Martinez was more accurate on his throws, and Martinez said decision-making was his biggest point of emphasis.
“He’s throwing balls on time,” Lubick pointed out, something that was a bugaboo last year. “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.”
Added head coach Scott Frost: “He’s had a really good spring, He 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.”
What if Martinez’s out-of-the-blue freshman campaign warped expectations of who he’s supposed to be? Frost wants him to just be who he is. For Martinez, that’s a wonderful athlete who can threaten a defense with his legs and hit the throws that need to be hit when they’re presented.
Over his career, Martinez has had problems here and there reading defenses. The great defensive coordinators have given him fits. When he’s had to press, that’s been a bad mixture and it has contributed to an 11-16 record as a starter. Perhaps a team better equipped to complement who Martinez is changes the narrative.
If Nebraska is taking shots downfield with more frequency this season, that 71.5% completion percentage from a season ago is probably tough to replicate. Teams will probably give Nebraska that early in the year—load the box to stop the run, make Martinez prove he’s capable of winning with his arm.
He’s capable of hitting those throws. Turnovers and spotty decision-making have just short-circuited things.
Nebraska knows Martinez’s game at this point. A massive senior leap as a passer, however possible, seems unlikely. But if he’s taking care of the football, the floor is going to be pretty high too. Given the talent elsewhere, that’s absolutely good enough for Nebraska to win more games than it has.
And don’t discredit the mental piece.
Martinez has a new podcast. Two episodes in, he’s highlighted—both directly and indirectly—the maturation process he’s gone through. At one point he and center Cam Jurgens have a discussion about accepting the undue criticism that comes with being in the positions they’re in and not letting it impact them.
“There was a game my sophomore year where I was getting booed off the field,” he said in the podcast’s debut episode. “And that hurts. That hurts because I play the game for the love of it and I wanna win so bad. It’s not like I’m not trying out there. It’s not from a lack of effort. I’m just a college kid. I think the problem some fans run into is just viewing us as the football guys out there, just the number on our back.
“I didn’t sign up to be booed. But I signed up for this type of passion from the fanbase. Whether it’s rational or not, I did sign up for it and it doesn’t change at the next level.”
Frost says Martinez is in a better headspace. From a leadership standpoint, he’s what every coach wants. From a maturity standpoint, the same can be said. From a physical standpoint, he feels like he might be able to rediscover the first-step quickness he had as a freshman.
All are good things for Nebraska’s bottom line.
Just cut the friggin’ turnovers. We might see who Martinez is supposed to be if he can.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.