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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: A Tale of Two QBs

April 24, 2020
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The former Nebraska quarterback got the Heisman-winner who wanted to be a Nebraska quarterback, so the 2020 NFL Draft started the way everyone thought it would.

With the first pick the Cincinnati Bengals and head coach Zac Taylor selected LSU's Joe Burrow, as expected. It offered ESPN host Trey Wingo the chance to revisit this key part of the Burrow origin story after photos of Burrow's father and two brothers, all in the Husker uniforms they once wore, flashed on the screen.

The source for that well-worn piece of the story is this tweet from spring of 2018 . . .

. . . though there may be a little extra context needed.

Doesn't much matter now. Burrow being rebuffed by Nebraska not once but twice is just part of the lore. And that part is true. While we can argue over the true intent of Frost's comment, we can't argue that Burrow has said he was interested in NU, twice, and Nebraska's actions indicated they weren't interested enough to make it happen.

But here's the other thing, Frost was pretty much right after the 2018 season.

 

There wasn't a ton of separation between Martinez as a true freshman in 2018 and Burrow's first season as starter at LSU. Martinez ranked 16th among QBs with a minimum of 200 countable plays in predicted points added (PPA) on rushing plays, Burrow 37th. The latter had a slight edge in passing PPA, ranking 76th in 2018 to Martinez's 82nd.

Then in 2019, while piloting a revamped LSU offense, Burrow took what would've been numbers from a nice passing season––2,800 yards, 30 touchdowns, three interceptions––and doubled them. Martinez, meanwhile, regressed in both his passing and rushing production. 

Result: Nebraska is prominently featured during the first pick of the NFL Draft, though for reasons you don't want to be prominently featured.

So it goes.

But perhaps Burrow's nearly off-the-charts ascent over the course of a season can be Frost and Nebraska's saving grace here. I wouldn't count on it--there's a reason it's nearly off the charts--but Burrow at least showed it was possible.

In Monday's Hot Reads I mentioned that I would have more on Martinez and the Huskers' offensive efficiency, as that was part of Bill Connelly's prescribed path back for Nebraska. He shared this passing chart for Martinez in 2019, which includes the quarterback’s QBR on throws based on location and distance. (The yellow line is the line of scrimmage.)

Passes behind the line of scrimmage, to the right, were bizarrely inefficient. In fact, the sidelines as a whole were a problem until you get 20-plus yards downfield, where Martinez posted his second- and third-best QBRs. That's pretty much the opposite of what I would've expected.

Presented with the numbers, however, my working theory becomes this: The success down the field on both sidelines is largely a function of Nebraska's offense. Think long JD Spielman touchdown at Colorado or against Wisconsin. He was wide open on both of them. This offense doesn't struggle to scheme people open. Without going deeper into the data––which I will do eventually––this seems like a plausible explanation. It's not like you'd say Nebraska's diminutive wide receivers were winning a lot of 50-50 balls deep down the sidelines.

In fact Connelly uses that passing chart as a way to mention this:

While the Huskers had a couple of solid efficiency options in JD Spielman and Robinson, they are 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10, respectively. There weren't a lot of big post-up options for Martinez, who really could have used one.
That makes Omar Manning an interesting acquisition. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound wide receiver transfer from Kilgore (Texas) College caught 35 passes for 727 yards (20.8 per catch) and six scores last season. You never want to rely too much on savior-transfers to turn things around, but he is exactly what the passing game lacked last season, and his readiness, or lack thereof, could have a huge impact. The same might go for 6-foot-2, 200-pound blue-chip freshman Zavier Betts.

The addition of some bigger wide receivers could help. I think the coaches think it will help, but at some point Martinez has to see things a little better, too. For all of the brilliance of that freshman season, Martinez was merely OK as a passer in 2018 and things took a step back in 2019. Maybe that was due to the line or a diminished receiving corps or injury or, most likely, all three, but it's something that has to change going forward. 

Martinez does have a new offensive coordinator this season. That's not why Burrow became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday, but, like being spurned by the Huskers, it's at least part of the story.

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