How long will leash be with Adrian Martinez? Whatever it is, it should be longer
After bursting on to the college football scene as a true freshman in 2018, Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez garnered Heisman Trophy talk last offseason.
The chatter and hype was well-deserved. The dual-threat Martinez was electric as Scott Frost’s shiny new toy, averaging 295.1 total yards per game, which ranked 2nd in the B1G — behind Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins (352.8) — and 12th in the nation. He showed his running ability and solid but promising arm.
Even though the team finished with an ugly 4-8 record, there was hope in the Heartland. If Martinez did that as a freshman, what is he going to do as a sophomore, Huskers fans asked.
We all know the answer.
Martinez suffered a sophomore slump and Nebraska endured another disappointing season without a bowl at 5-7. He got banged up, too, injuring his left knee against Northwestern and left shoulder against Purdue. He missed games against Minnesota and Indiana and threw just 1 more TD (10) than INTs (9) while seeing his completion percentage drop from 64.6 in 2018 to 59.4.
On top of those struggles, Martinez dealt with the emergence of another shiny new Frost QB recruit in Luke McCaffrey, who kept his redshirt by only playing in 4 games. Ah, but those 4 games were enough to have fans chanting his name in Memorial Stadium.
In limited action, McCaffrey averaged 6.9 yards per carry. It was fairly obvious that when McCaffrey was in the game, the Huskers were going to run the football with simple zone-reads. For the most part, he was one-dimensional. The passes he threw were rarely in the pocket. However, he still stung defenses by throwing 2 TDs and completing 9-of-12 attempts to make defenses aware of his arm.
The highlight was against Iowa. Needing a spark in the 3rd quarter, Frost replaced Martinez with McCaffrey, and the freshman delivered with a 39-yard TD pass to JD Spielman that cut the Huskers’ deficit to 24-17.
Martinez’s shortcomings lead me to believe his leash is going to be much shorter in 2020. But it shouldn’t be. There was a lot that went wrong for Nebraska last year, much of which wasn’t Martinez’s fault.
Don’t forget the season-opener against South Alabama, and the poor showing from an offensive line with new starters. Then redshirt freshman center, Cam Jurgens, was making his first start. He was a converted tight end, and it showed. Jurgens struggled against a big and veteran defensive line and was benched midway through the game, but not before botching snaps to Martinez.
Jurgens and the line improved as the season went on, but Martinez and then backup QB Noah Vedral, who’s now at Rutgers, dealt with inaccurate snaps for much of the first half of the season.
For the most part, Martinez struggled in the passing game in 2019. Was it all his fault? That’s hard to tell. Only Spielman, Wan’Dale Robinson, tight end Jack Stoll, WR Kanawai Noa, RB Dedrick Mills and the now-departed RB Maurice Washington had more than 10 catches last year.
Of that group, who scares a defense? Spielman and Robinson did, but the others didn’t. That meant defenses could focus more attention on Spielman. Robinson spending half his time in the backfield as a running back only hurt the downfield passing attack more. Martinez simply didn’t have the talent at receiver in 2019. The guys he had out there, for the most part, didn’t get enough separation against B1G defenses.
That’s a key reason Nebrasks finished 11th in the B1G in pass plays gaining 10 or more yards.
Nebraska has help coming in that area, though. A group of talented, yet inexperienced, ball catchers will see the field in 2020. It will be interesting to see who takes advantage of the opportunity and emerges as a reliable, consistent threat. Will the top JUCO WR in the country, Omar Manning? Fans certainly hope so. Nebraska hasn’t had a WR his size — 6-4, 225 pounds — in a long time, and it would benefit Martinez and the run game if defenses had to send safety help to Manning, which in turn makes a lighter box and opens the middle of the field for TEs or the electric Robinson in the slot.
With his entire offensive line returning along with a potential 1,000-yard rusher in Mills and an improved cast of WRs, Martinez will be in a much better situation than last year. Those reasons should cool the hype on McCaffrey, who is still working on building his body to stand the physicality of the B1G.
This doesn’t mean McCaffrey shouldn’t play. Of course he should; he’s too talented to sit. But Frost needs to pick his spots and use him in certain packages and situations. Doing so also would reduce some of the wear and tear off Martinez, who missed 3 games in 2 seasons and is coming off offseason surgery.
No one should blame fans who are intrigued by what a McCaffrey-led offense would look like, but Frost still clearly believes in Martinez.
“I think it’s just his mindset and his approach,” Frost told Parker Gabriel of the Lincoln Journal Star. “He came in his first year and had to compete for that spot, and he looked like a competitor every single day in practice. Year 2, because of the situation, I think he was able to put it in cruise control a little more, and I think that showed up on the field a little bit. That’s not to put everything on him. There’s a lot of things he couldn’t control. But I don’t think he’ll be lax in his preparation ever again.”
Frost doesn’t hold back when he’s in front of a microphone. You have to think Martinez read that and a fire was lit immediately, which, for Huskers fans, is a good thing.
Martinez wasn’t very good in 2019. Most everyone can agree on that. But fans will be making a mistake if they’re hopping on the Luke Wagon and calling for a change after the first bad interception.
With a fresh start and better surroundings, expect Martinez to remind everyone that he can be one of the most exciting QBs in the B1G.