Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Scoring the Huskers: Quarterbacks

February 3, 2020
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This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. We’ve scored Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now. Each day has brought about a different position group, but they’ve all been scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scores: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive Backs | Offensive Line | Wideouts and Tight Ends | Running Backs

With the defense already covered, and most of the offense looked at last week, there’s only one group left. . .

Quarterbacks

Returning: Luke McCaffrey (rFR), Noah Vedral (JR), Adrian Martinez (JR)

Incoming: Logan Smothers‍ (FR)

Returning Production: Everything

  Comp % Yards/Att Yards TDs INTs Expl Pass (Rate)
Adrian Martinez 59.4% (149/251) 7.8 1,956 10 9 40 (26.8%)
Noah Vedral 65.4% (34/52) 8.0 418 - - 7 (20.6%)
Luke McCaffrey 75.0% (9/12) 11.8 142 2 - 4 (44.4%)
Andrew Bunch 16.7% (1/6) 2.2 13 - - -

***Explosive pass plays, in my book, were 20-yard-or-more completions.

And, because this is Nebraska, ignoring the rushing numbers for the quarterbacks would be ignoring a huge chunk of the picture.

  Att Yards YPC TDs Expl Runs (Rate)
Adrian Martinez 144 626 4.4 7 24 (16.7%)
Noah Vedral 30 106 3.5 3 1 (3.3%)
Luke McCaffrey 24 166 6.9 1 9 (37.5%)
Andrew Bunch 2 -1 -0.5 - -

Regardless of how you feel about who should start at quarterback for Nebraska in 2020, who’s better, how incumbent starter Adrian Martinez’s 2019 campaign went, who was at fault for what, etc., etc., there is one statement that is pretty hard to argue with when it comes to Nebraska’s quarterback room this upcoming season:

It is teeming with talent.

That obviously means something different here than it would at, say, wideout, but it bears mentioning early on that quarterback coach Mario Verduzco and head coach Scott Frost have done quite a job overhauling the talent level of Nebraska’s quarterback room since taking over.

They arrived with Tristan Gebbia and Patrick O’Brien and that was it. And both those guys left before Frost ran out of the tunnel for the first time. Now, Nebraska is sitting with four scholarship quarterbacks (three of whom have playing experience) who could all realistically start for a Power 5 football program in 2020 and play well.

The fan poll saw the quarterback room score an average of 7.4. Most responses were either a seven or a 7.5 (with the occasional eight sprinkled in). Understanding why some might be skeptical of the true star power of the room after the way 2019 was hyped, that still feels a little low.

Logan Smothers is so intriguing as a prospect. Work to be done, sure, but very few high school quarterbacks, if any, are complete when they first get to school. Smothers excites because he suffered late in his season what could have been deemed a season-ending injury and wouldn’t let it end his season. In his high school career he tallied 10,428 yards and 100 touchdowns. As a senior, he posted a 3,013-yard season with 41 total touchdowns despite only playing in 38 of 52 quarters. Essentially statistical depreciation because his team was so good. He was Steph Curry sitting on the bench the whole fourth quarter.

Verduzco loves the kid.

Luke McCaffrey is the same way. What a ridiculous first year on campus. Hailed as one of the hardest-working freshmen Nebraska had, the youngest brother in a long line of football greats buried his nose in the playbook so much Frost and teammates alike were seemingly commenting on it every availability in the spring.

He parlayed that into playing time at quarterback, as a dedicated runner, and at wide receiver. McCaffrey was a big play waiting to happen when he was on the field. His quickness and vision played a role in nine 10-yard carries on 24 rushing attempts, and that effectiveness as a runner made the play-action game an even bigger weapon. McCaffrey threw well when rolled out of the pocket and had 20-yard pick-ups on four of his nine completions. What kind of quarterback does he look like with another year in the weight room?

Those two, McCaffrey and Smothers, are in for some kind of quarterback competition when the position comes open in a year or two.

It’s not open now.

Nebraska will have a quarterback competition this spring and fall in the same way there’s “open competition” at every spot, but this staff—namely Frost and Verduzco—are still supremely confident in Adrian Martinez.

His numbers year-over-year took a dip. Young, developing quarterbacks are expected to go the opposite way. But there’s a lot of misleading information just looking at a raw box score. Martinez wasn’t healthy in 2019, not even close over the last couple of months. Frost confirmed in December his quarterback had surgery when the season ended.

The yardage dip doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things as those numbers can be manipulated by factors that have nothing to do with quarterback performance. The two that are pertinent to a Martinez discussion in this case are his completion percentage and his touchdown-to-turnover ratio.

A 64.6% passer as a freshman, Martinez’s clip dipped below 60% as a sophomore (down to 59.4). It’s true that he missed open receivers, electing to throw into coverage instead. It’s true he trusted his arm strength a little too much at times, or trusted he could fit a ball into too tight a window. But when you watched Martinez late in 2019, you saw a guy out there with shaken confidence. If you’re thinking about missing a throw, you’re going to miss a throw. Then you spiral. Martinez was frustrated.

How much of his flustered state of being last year while throwing from the pocket had to do with protection and snap issues? We’ll find that out pretty early on in 2020 if the snap has worked itself out. How much of it had to do with defenses simply having film on the kid and knowing what to do on the back end of their coverages in order to confuse or manipulate him?

That’s something you can be positive Verduzco, Frost and Martinez have spent and will spend a good deal of time on this offseason: reading coverages. Martinez won’t be facing a Don Brown defense in 2020 but the last five teams on the schedule will most likely task Martinez with beating them with his arm if he wants to leave with a win.

The other number (or set, in this case) worth mentioning: 17 touchdowns responsible for, 13 turnovers. Martinez threw nine interceptions and lost four fumbles (he put eight on the deck). That makes 27 turnovers in his first two seasons. Again, a number of reasons for why they happened, but turnovers have killed Nebraska in two years under Frost.

They have to be cut down. Martinez’s big-play rate as both a passer and a runner is an encouraging number, but it too often has felt like one step forward with two back. Twenty-yard completions don’t much matter if they aren’t producing points at the end of the day.

Perhaps we’ll be looking at a prove-it campaign for a guy who’s somehow already a junior.

Score: 8/10

 
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