Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

A Look at Adrian Martinez's First Year at Nebraska

November 25, 2018
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Fair or not, the expectations for Adrian Martinez are about to skyrocket.

That’s how good his true freshman season was.

As an 18-year-old kid, Martinez came into the spring having missed all of his senior high school season with a shoulder injury. He looked every bit the dual-threat guy he was billed as in spring action, but the worry was his “zip,” or “cha-ching,” as quarterback coach Mario Verduzco likes to put it. That came back midway through fall camp and Martinez distanced himself from the others in what was a closer-than-expected quarterback race. 

In his first career collegiate game, his first career collegiate play went for 18 yards on a quarterback draw right up the middle. Right to the “N” at midfield. Thinking back now, it’s almost poetic. For the next three years (two...?) Nebraska football will be synonymous with Martinez. “Get to know me right away,” it said.

The kid showed everyone what was coming.

Here’s Martinez’s final stat line:

  Total Freshman QB Rank Overall QB Rank
Total Offense (YPG) 295.1 yards 1st 16th
Passing (YPG) 237.9 yards 3rd 36th
Rushing (YPG) 57.2 yards 2nd 15th
Yards Per Play 6.7 yards 4th 45th
Yards Per Pass 7.5 yards 4th 57th
Completion Percentage 64.6 percent 3rd 29th
Passer Rating 139.46 3rd 47th
Touchdowns 17 3rd 53rd
20-yard Pass Plays 35 6th 51st

And he only played in 11 games this season, missing the Troy loss on Sept. 15. (Ten and a half if you want to get technical; he was gimpy against Michigan on Sept. 22 and was pulled at halftime in a lost game.) In terms of straight production, Martinez was among the country’s best in his first year and that’s where we’ll start. 

“He’s just fearless and nothing rattles him,” head coach Scott Frost said Friday after a season-ending loss to Iowa. When Nebraska had a two-point conversion looming in the fourth quarter with a shot to tie the game, the Huskers needed a play from their quarterback. “I told him on the two-point conversion what we were doing and if it didn’t work he would have to make something happen. You could say that to a lot of guys and not many could do it. He made something happen.”

Again, that’s a freshman making that throw. 

And he made it from Day 1.

The running ability was expected, but the playmaking has exceeded expectations. Martinez finished fourth in the Big Ten in 10-yard runs with 30, and that's among all Big Ten players, not just quarterbacks. Among quarterbacks, he led the conference. Actually, there's a better way to phrase that; only six quarterbacks in Division I football had more 10-yard runs than Martinez. There we go. That's the effect I was going for.

And the shoulder proved fine. Martinez made throws like this one to JD Spielman against Purdue on Sept. 29.

And this one to Stanley Morgan Jr. against Ohio State on Nov. 3. Look. At. That. Throw.

“The sky is the limit, I don’t think he has a ceiling," linebacker Luke Gifford said after the Iowa game. "Especially in this system and the guys he has around him. It’s going to be tough to stop them in the next couple of years. I wouldn’t want to play defense against them that’s for sure."

Which means it's never too early to start the Heisman Trophy hype train. Some national media suggested as such after the Iowa game. As a sophomore next season, Martinez will probably get preseason Heisman odds from Vegas. (Not saying they'll be good odds, but Vegas gives odds for something like 20 players every offseason.)

No one ever knows how to explain that "it" factor but everyone knows it when they see it. Everyone that watches Martinez play sees "it."

“I expect to see a Heisman in the next three years," running back Devine Ozigbo said of the freshman. "I feel he’s a guy that can do it. He’s playing crazy for a freshman. Giving this kid more time to grow, develop and learn the offense will be bad for everyone else. I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Currently, there’s nothing about Martinez that worries you. He’s harder on himself than anyone, he shoulders all the blame in losses and deflects as much praise as possible in wins. Verduzco wants his quarterbacks to play emotionless. If the offense performs at a high level, Martinez has simply done his job.

Don’t get too high, and don’t get too low. That works over the course of a game and over the course of a season. Martinez has gone through plenty of emotional peaks and valleys with the Huskers this season but the stuff that has gone on between the ears has impressed Verduzco.

Martinez caught on early to the emotionless thing. “The time to be pissed off at yourself is after the game, the time to celebrate is after the game,” Verduzco tells him often. “When the game is going on, stay emotionless and steely-eyed.”

Martinez has played in every big house he’ll play in at Nebraska. In the regular season, Martinez won’t play in one bigger venue than the ones he played in during his first season — Michigan Stadium, Ohio Stadium, Camp Randall. (Hat tip to Erin Sorensen on that one). So there’s that part of the experience piece. 

And he’s already played in maybe the worst weather conditions he’ll play in. Against Michigan State on Nov. 17, it was freezing cold, incredible windy and snowing. Statistically speaking, it was his worst full game of the season. He went 16-for-37 for 145 yards passing and only 18 rushing yards. But in some cases, stats are deceiving. Both coach Scott Frost and Verduzco thought Martinez played one of his better games of the season.

“At the beginning of the game, I thought he was trying to do too much,” Verduzco said. “I knew from when the game started it was going to be like that. Most of what we were going to talk about was just keeping him from getting frustrated. Those games are hard for everybody but particularly for a quarterback when you’re trying to throw the ball and it’s going end over end. It can get frustrating.

“So, when we were talking on the phone, I said, ‘Don’t get frustrated, things are going to happen, our defense is playing out of their minds and it’s going to come down to maybe the last few seconds of the game.’”

After the game, Verduzco said Martinez’s demeanor was “like his dog just died.” They talked and Verduzco brought him down, telling him he doesn’t know many freshmen that could have played well given the conditions and quality of defense on the other side. 

“In the second half, he did as good a job as I’ve been around making really, really good decisions in tough situations,” Verduzco said. “It was that thing we’ve talked about for the last four or five weeks that’s been kind of the theme from game-to-game — just do your job. I could just tell in the first half he was doing things that I wouldn’t say were out of character, but I hadn’t seen before.”

He didn’t see that stuff in the second half. As the season has gone on, Martinez has grown more comfortable taking past mistakes, past coverages and past lessons and applying them to what he’s seeing on the field in real-time. The game has slowed down, but that doesn’t mean anything to Verduzco if it doesn’t make your decision-making faster. For Martinez, he’s recognizing, processing and firing.

The next step will be what the natural next step is with all quarterbacks: increase efficiency. The interceptions weren’t an issue the way they have been in Lincoln in recent years, Martinez had eight but only had one game with multiple picks. Most weren’t coverage misreads, just a guy trusting his arm talent more than he trusts the secondary’s hands. The thing that needs to improve is ball security.

Martinez had the second-most fumbles in the country with 12. Only Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall had more. Most of them — like the backward pass against the Buckeyes — should get better with maturity. 

Everything about his first season reads as optimistically as possible. The mistakes are ones that freshmen make, ones Frost knew would come, while the highs have maybe been even higher than anyone reasonably expected.

Basically, get ready for more of this going forward.

 
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