For a fourth year, we’re counting down the 10 most intriguing Huskers. Last weekend, I wrote about who would have earned spots 11-20 if the countdown was extended out, and before that 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.
On Wednesday, this series kicked off with Nick Henrich.
No. 9: Oliver Martin
When Scott Frost arrived at Nebraska, one of his high-priority goals was rebuilding the Husker walk-on program to a size and talent level that better resembled his playing days. The overall roster size had begun shrinking in the early 2000s when the Osborne era ended, and Frost wanted to reverse course.
I just don’t think anyone thought he would cheat in beefing up the walk-on ranks.
That’s a joke, of course. There’s no real right or wrong way to go about adding talent to a roster (though anything involving McDonald’s bags is probably the wrong way). As long as you’re operating within the confines of what’s allowed, weaponize every lever and mechanism at your disposal to add quality players to your depth.
For all the struggles this coaching staff has had in its first three-plus years in Lincoln, the mere process of adding talent to the roster hasn’t been one of them. Frost has consistently been able to bring over scholarship-level talent as walk-ons. At various key positions, there are players who were on scholarship elsewhere and not yet counting against the cap for the Huskers despite factoring into the two-deep.
Nouri Nouili was a starter for Colorado State on the offensive line and now in Lincoln. Ezra Miller was a high-value prospect for Iowa in recruiting; now in Lincoln. Jaquez Yant had scholarship offers elsewhere; walked on at Nebraska (and one of the first of the group to earn a scholarship). Connor Culp is an All-Big Ten level kicker who walked on. Isaac Gifford had scholarship offers elsewhere; walked on at Nebraska.
With a few scholarships still to award to walk-ons, junior wideout Oliver Martin seems as likely a candidate for one as there is on the entire roster.
Because there might be only a handful of players on that roster who have had as productive a last six months as Martin.
He was a 4-star recruit out of Iowa City and the Gatorade Player of the Year in his state for 2017. He committed to Michigan and then after two years transferred home to Iowa, where he had five catches for 28 yards and one touchdown in five games that first year. After it, he was once again in the portal, this time finding his way to Nebraska.
Around the Big Ten water cooler, Martin’s addition did little to spur conversation. There’s a perception about multi-time transfers in college football now—that they lack drive or determination or whatever buzzword people like to use to call someone lazy in a cloaked way—and the jokes, particularly in Iowa, flew.
From the time he arrived, though, Nebraska felt confident it had a player who could contribute. In what Frost feels is and what sure looks to be the best collection of wideout talent the Huskers have had in years, Martin looks poised to start.
“He’s always had great athletic ability. We knew that,” said offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. “I actually recruited him out of high school when I was at Oregon, but now he’s taken it a step further because he understands the offense.
“He had all these great skills, but when he was thinking, he was playing a little bit slow. It does that to everybody. But now that he’s playing with some confidence, knows what he’s doing, you can actually see his athletic ability come through, and it’s been impressive.”
He missed the first three weeks of the 2020 season with a pending appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility. With precarious wideout depth last year, Nebraska couldn’t afford to give practice reps to a guy who wasn’t available on Saturdays. As a result, once he was ruled eligible, he didn’t feel any kind of comfort level within the scheme during his first few weeks on the field. And still he earned four starts and played in each of NU’s last five games.
When Nebraska tested after the winter, Martin was frankly remarkable. His 40-inch vertical was the best on the team. A 3.95-second timed pro agility run was tied for the fifth-best mark on the team. A 1.59-second 10-yard split time was tied for the sixth best on the team, and the best among the wideouts. And Martin says he ran a 4.5-second double-laser 40, one of the fastest on the team.
(Double-laser isn’t what’s used at the NFL Combine. Scouts hand clock the start and a laser clocks the finish. Players were told a laser start/laser finish is the slowest timing system and they could take expect to take two tenths of a second off their time.)
Case in point: he’s athletic.
This spring, Frost called his work exceptional. Said teammate Wyatt Liewer: “We do one-on-ones just about every day and I don’t think he’s lost a rep of that.”
And in the May 1 Spring Game, for whatever it’s worth, he seemed to be a security blanket kind of option for quarterback Adrian Martinez, a guy Martinez could know was going to be where he expected and catch what was thrown his way.
“I feel fast, explosive,” Martin said. “I’m really confident in my abilities right now. I feel like I can execute the plays the coaches are calling, whether it’s getting open in the zone or against man coverage. I feel really good with where I’m at right now.”
At 6-foot-1, he’s not the tallest in the room, though his vertical would seem to level that plane nicely. He considers himself a downfield threat with good route-running ability. Nebraska needs that. The offense averaged 6.6 yards per pass last season, tied with Hawaii and Vanderbilt for 93rd nationally. It had an explosive (20-plus yards) play rate of 7.9%, a mark that ranked 98th nationally.
With Samori Toure set to start in the slot, Martin will likely see a bulk of his snaps on the outside. If Toure lives up to his billing, Martin could find some favorable matchups in coverage. If Omar Manning is lined up opposite him consistently, even better.
Martinez needs his wideouts to get open on a more consistent basis in 2021, but he also needs to trust the hands he’s throwing to enough to let rip even when the situation isn’t perfect. Martin could theoretically check both boxes.
This was an offense that produced just 190 yards passing a game last season. Over a normal 12-game sampling, it would have been the least productive passing season for a Nebraska team since 2011. Even if Martin is just a 500 or 600-yard receiver in 2021, that could do a lot to help the bottom line.
He feels a player with a high floor, a steady option in a room with a lot of variance. If Martin turns an exceptional spring into an exceptional fall, Nebraska could theoretically have three wideouts all capable of being a go-to any given Saturday. That’d be quite the turn of events.