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What Nebraska’s Quarterback Has Been Working on This Offseason

July 14, 2019

It’s summer. Everyone’s bigger. Everyone’s stronger. Everyone’s working hard to be better than last season. Everyone’s healthy. Summer is all about internal development, but you don’t really have a barometer to judge improvement until the season starts, but you work on your game nonetheless. 

Even though he broke records last season, has earned preseason Heisman buzz and is largely the reason so many are incredibly high on the Huskers heading into 2019, sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez has stuff to work on same as everyone else. A 2,617-yard passing, 789-yard rushing, 25-touchdown true freshman campaign is just the starting point. Is it a super duper high starting point? You bet. That just means the ceiling for the kid is higher, and no, he hasn’t hit his ceiling. 

Not even close. 

One thing quarterback coach Mario Verduzco stresses to of all his quarterbacks is to sell the handoff. Even if the play he’s running doesn’t have an option component to it, Nebraska’s quarterback on the field is expected to race away from the handoff in the opposite direction of the running back. If Dedrick Mills is getting the ball from Martinez and running right, Martinez better be immediately taking off left. All it takes is one second’s hesitation from a defender to open up a lane for the runner. 

Coach and quarterback are working on stripping away the emotion; Verduzco doesn’t want to see any of that after a play. If Martinez has a bad throw, not even a quick clap is allowed. Just move on to the next play and make a better throw. Head coach Scott Frost wants Martinez working on his leadership ability. But, there are a few things that, if improved, can help Martinez’s game rise to the next level. 

Five Points of Pressure

The whistle blows, the drills come to a close and everyone jogs to the south end zone inside the Hawks Championship Center. It’s time for the stretch portion of warmups. Guys are high-kneeing it from the goal line to the 10. Guys are sprinting 10 yards on strength coach Zach Duval’s count. If they would normally carry it in a game, they’re holding a football in their hand while going through stretch. All the while, Frost and other members of the coaching staff are sneaking up behind guys in line trying to punch the ball loose. 

Every quarterback has a ball in their hands.

Don’t. Fumble. The. Football.

“Better to die as a baby than to fumble the football or throw a pick, right?” Verduzco asked at some point last season.

The biggest thing with Martinez in Year 2 will be ball security. 

There were times in 2018 where Martinez just wanted to do too much. It’s fine. It’s expected. A first-year player with all the talent in the world and a creative mind. Things happen. A guy with the kind of flair and confidence Martinez has will want to try and make the most of a bad play. Over time, that guy learns to just eat 3 or 4 yards on a sack or throw the ball away and live to fight another down. That unsightly Ohio State fumble jumps to mind. Doin’ too much. 

Risk-taking generally decreases with experience, at least unnecessary risk-taking. That stuff will be massaged out of Martinez’s game with time. But, he can help his situation with better fundamentals. 

Martinez ended 2018 with 12 fumbles, the second-most of any player in the country. He lost six of those, the most of any player in the country. This offseason (and last season, to be fair), the five points of pressure have been stressed. 

That’s fingers, palm, forearm, bicep and chest. The football needs to be in contact with all five. Holding the ball out away from the body with just five fingers and a palm as the points of contact is asking for trouble. Martinez can scramble with the best of them, but the ball was often in some precarious situations when he did. 

There’s a saying with the quarterbacks. Without giving too much of the inner workings away, just know that they’re instructed to make the play they’re comfortable with. If they see a window, rip it. If they’re in their progressions and spot an open man, fire away. If they don’t like what they’re seeing, tuck the ball and run. But, if they decide to run, “tuck it” can’t be forgotten about. Bring the football high and tight and make sure you don’t let that thing go.

Adjusted to account for sacks, Martinez ran it just under 11 times a game last season. Given the general uncertainty surrounding the running back position, most expect that number to rise in 2019. Ozigbo was the leading rusher at nearly 13 a game, and with him gone and a clear-cut replacement not really all that clear-cut, perhaps Martinez is closer to 15 than he is to 10. The easy comparison to make is Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. 

His high-water mark came in 2014 (his Heisman season) and he still only topped out at nine carries a game. But that season Oregon got 252 carries from Royce Freeman (17 a game). Nebraska doesn’t have that luxury this upcoming season. Martinez could very well be more like Freeman than Mariota in terms of usage. His frame is also a little more conducive to running.

If the workload increases, ball security needs to improve. Martinez fumbled right around nine percent of his carries last year. That won’t do.

Blinking Quick

As with any young quarterback, getting more comfortable processing the massive amounts of data Martinez sees on any given play is just something that will come with time. As Martinez’s comfort level within the Husker offense grows, his comfort with reading and adjusting on the fly will grow as well. 

On an interception in his first game against Colorado, his progression was outside-in, but he went inside-out and it cost him. As the season went on, shifting fronts could sometimes spell protection breakdowns if things weren’t adjusted before the snap. Finding the read guy and identifying what he’s doing in the split second after the ball is snapped, then making a decision on where to go on any given play in another millisecond is something that isn’t easily mastered. 

It requires repetition. 

Martinez is still working in this area. It’s not just about being more comfortable diagnosing things, but also having the command and the voice to call everything out. If Martinez recognizes the defense isn’t set and his offense is, he needs to demand the football quick. If he sees a linebacker where he shouldn’t and his offensive line hasn’t adjusted, he needs to be the guy who calls it to their attention. 

In Year 1 it was about Frost and Co. putting the young quarterback in a position where he could make quick and easy decisions. As he gets older, it’ll be about whether Martinez can manipulate defenses more into doing what he wants. He still needs to play fast, but being able to move a safety with his eyes will be just as important. 

Footwork

When I first started learning to box, I spent a week on stance before even throwing a punch. Some boxers like to stand completely sideways. Some stand straight on. I was taught to be at an angle. Think of a clock. (I’m right handed, so my stance was opened up to the right, with my left foot as the lead. It works out that Martinez is the same.) My back right foot is right around 5 o’clock. My front left around 11. 

A boxer’s power comes from his legs. Feet, legs and hips drive force. Throwing a punch in this regard is a lot like throwing a football. But that particular stance also helps a boxer’s balance and their ability to move laterally. Move, but keep that stance the same. 

Verduzco wants his quarterbacks in a similar stance right from the moment they take that first step back. It helps give them that “cha-ching” that’s so often written about, it helps with balance and it helps with escapability. Verduzco explains this all in a much more scientific manner and his quarterbacks ingest it. 

In this part of his game, Martinez is still working. 

Here’s what it’s supposed to look like. 

This is Vedral’s footwork. In a lot of ways, this is what being in the system for now three years does. You know the ins and outs of the playbook, and can really hammer home the details. Here’s Martinez.

Sometimes Martinez gets caught with his back foot almost past the 6 o’clock mark on the pretend clock. Sometimes that first step backward with his right foot is a little too far back and it throws off his entire stance. 

Remember this? 

That’s what they’re working on. 

And it’s not just on his dropback. The lead foot of Nebraska’s quarterbacks should be pointing at their target throughout the throwing motion; if an arrow extended out the front of the toe it would hit the target, and if it went back through the heel, it would hit perpendicular to the back foot. Footwork for a quarterback is everything. A crucial part of the process. Martinez is good in this aspect. He’s working to be great.

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