Huskers Preview 2019

HUSKER PREVIEW

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THE NORTH PLATTE TELEGRAPH

THURSDAY, AUGUST 29, 2019

Huskers’ rise in Scott Frost’s 2nd season rides on Adrian Martinez — and he seems up to the task

interceptions. Combined, Mar- tinez accounted for more than one turnover per game. Turnovers played a factor in the first quarter of his college career — when he lost a fum- ble that Colorado turned into a touchdown — and remained an issue for most of the season. Northwestern returned a Martinez fumble for a touch- down. Costly interceptions thwarted a comeback against Purdue. A bizarre mistake at Ohio State — perhaps the only true rookie error Martinez made last season — killed a Husker possession inside the Buckeye 10-yard line. Mistakes like that make quar- terbacks coach Mario Verduzco cringe. A man whose life’s work has been spent studying the quarterback craft, Verduzco writes up 700-question tests just to make sure his pupils don’t miss a detail. He’s in North Sta- dium before dawn to study tape. He creates his own drills de- signed to replicate the “open en- vironment” of quarterbacking — his players throw often on the run and practice the actual routes they’ll throw in games versus the standard-issue slant- and-curl patterns — and relies on the four domains of learn- ing to assess the growth of his quarterbacks. Martinez smiled at Big Ten media days when talking about Verduzco. Called him a “whiz” with “contagious” energy. If Martinez, like his coach, draws people to him with presence, Verduzco juices up the particles of a room. They fit by being opposites — the natural, practical Martinez and the indefatigable, romantic Verduzco. Martinez, hesitant to de- scribe Verduzco, offered this: “He listens to opera music for some reason.” Verduzco has reshaped Mar- tinez’s throwing motion, im- proved his footwork and taught the quarterback to catalog on- field experiences from which he can draw upon this season. Are Martinez’s feet pointing toward the right receiver? Are his eye- balls pointed in the same direc- tion as his feet? When it’s time to improvise and play jazz out- side of the pocket, is Martinez keeping his technique? Does he have assurance that, when he makes the unpredictable play, there’s not a defender standing in the way? There are so many small com- ponents to keep straight, which is why Verduzco views the role as unique — why he’s spent so much time studying it. Marti- nez showed in spring, and again in training camp, that he grasps the game at a higher level. “There’s something in his memory bank, and it’s like ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before; I know exactly what to do,’ ” Verduzco said. “In that alone, that allows him to process the information

Coach Frost wants him to pro- cess that much more quickly.” Defensive coaches have no- ticed Martinez’s improvement, too. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher noted Martinez throws no “gimmes” for interceptions in practice. He places the ball in spots, Fisher said, where de- fensive backs can’t reach them without committing pass inter- ference. That’s the kind of ball placement Fisher used to see when he played in the NFL. Indeed, Martinez is better in drills at dropping the ball — as if by a bird — right into a spot for a receiver. Verduzco has his quarterbacks routinely throw a deep corner route in drills, where the aim is to put the ball on the receiver over his out- side shoulder just as he crosses the numbers on the field and is running toward the sideline. Martinez can make that throw, among the trickiest, with con- sistency. The pass isn’t unusu- ally flat or short, and rarely do receivers have to slow, or worse, catch the ball like a punt. It’s the kind of throw NFL quarterbacks make, and one of NU’s receivers, Cal graduate transfer Kanawai Noa, played with one at his former school: Jared Goff, who recently start- ed in the Super Bowl. Martinez, Noa said, has the same arm strength as Goff. What Martinez can do better, Noa said, is make plays on the run. “He’s a stud,” Noa said. “He’s super talented, especially when you can throw off your back foot. That’s super hard to do.” It also wasn’t easy to be the face of the program as a true freshman. But Martinez was, amassing 3,246 yards in 11 games. For this season, Frost want- ed more from Martinez than just production. He wanted No. 2 to be No. 1 in the locker room. A vocal leader who set the ex- ample and commanded respect without faking it. In 2019? In a sports culture where criticism of any kind — much less from a teammate — can be viewed as a deep, pene- trating wound? Still, Frost wanted more. Good teammates and leaders, he has said, hold others ac- countable and play with the betterment of their brothers in mind. When he arrived, fresh off the first of NU’s two 4-8 sea- sons, the culture was bankrupt, having drawn on too many in- dividual performances and not enough chemistry. And through the first half of last season, Frost saw glimpses of the same issues. “They look like they love losing, and they look undis- ciplined,” Frost said of some players after a loss to Purdue. Nebraska was 0-4 then and would fall to 0-6 before the tide finally turned and NU won four

By SAM MCKEWON BH News Service

LINCOLN — It’s a busy place, the second floor of the Hawks Center in the second year of Nebraska football under Scott Frost. Reporters flood the space. Players and coaches en- ter it only to be swamped. But there’s a small area, with a table and curtain backdrop, reserved for the leaders of the program. Frost, of course. Coor- dinators Troy Walters and Erik Chinander, too. This command post has be- come the new interview spot for the man whose talent most directly affects the fortunes of the 2019 Huskers. He posted the best freshman numbers ever for a Nebraska quarterback and, with the leap for his first ca- reer touchdown, began the slow journey of taking a team on his shoulders through a 4-8 season. Now he’s on the cover of mag- azines and among the men who have decent Heisman Trophy odds. He’s the quarterback of a team picked to win the Big Ten West in the face of Nebraska’s poor recent history. Year 2 for No. 2. Adrian Mar- tinez is square in the spotlight like no NU player has been since joining the Big Ten. As he goes, so go the Huskers. When he jumps for an end zone pylon, Nebraska fans can, for a second, dream: How high? How many points can that fast- paced, no-huddle offense put up? How many touchdowns can Martinez score? The program record for touchdown passes in a season is 26. Total touchdowns is 33. Both are in reach with a high-octane attack that netted one of Frost’s former quarterbacks, Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton, 45 touchdowns in 2017. But there’s a number attached to Milton’s season that Marti- nez loves more than the TDs. It’s 13 — UCF’s wins during its undefeated season. “You have to accomplish the mission of a leader,” Martinez said. “And, at the end of the day, my job is just to do everything I can to make sure this team has a better chance of winning. And that’s what I want to do. I want to win.” Year 2 for No. 2. As he goes, so go the Huskers. So go the hopes and dreams of a state yearning for a resurrection of Nebraska football. OK, so there’s a second num- ber Martinez is watching. And his coaches will tell you it’s the right one. “I should limit my turn- overs,” Martinez said. “That’s a big deal.” As he says the words “ball security,” he’s drawing his arm up, almost reflexively, into a high-and-tight method of car- rying the football. That’d be a good place to start for a guy who had 12 fumbles last season and lost six of them. He threw eight

The Associated Press Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez takes a question during a news conference on Monday in Lincoln. No. 24 Nebraska is in the preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2014, and a big reason for the positive vibe is Martinez, who last season was the most produc- tive freshman quarterback in the nation.

guy who calls out your team- mates, your brothers, but you just have to remember I’m do- ing it for their own good,” Mar- tinez said. “I’m not doing it to be mean. I’m not doing it to be a jerk. I’m doing it because I care about you. And when you think of it like that, with that perspec- tive, you know that other per- son will have no choice but to appreciate what they’re doing for you.” Do teammates listen? Marti- nez smiled. “I’d like to think so,” he said. “But that’s part of being a lead- er. You can’t go around critiqu- ing other people if you’re not doing your own job.” His job is both simple — win games, no turnovers — and complex, in the sense that Ne- braska’s coaches, players and fans can’t conceive of another difficult season, and Martinez is the guy who handles the ball most. He can’t escape the role of leader, of playmaker, of pro- gram resurrectionist. As he goes, so go the Huskers. “If I’m doing my job the right way, and I’m giving my team the best chance, we should be a lot better than last year,” Martinez said.

of its last six. Martinez scored a touchdown — and converted a 2-point conversion — on his fi- nal drive of the season at Iowa. He didn’t get another chance, as the Hawkeyes drove for the winning field goal, but it sent a message: Nebraska’s coming. Martinez is coming. So Frost wanted Martinez front and center, loud and clear. He told the media as much in the spring, and when reporters saw practice, they saw a more active and animated Martinez cheering on players during the physical Nebraska drill. Re- ports trickled out of Martinez’s competitiveness against NU’s defense. He might rifle a ball in frustration. He might, when a play goes well, talk a little trash. “I love it,” Martinez said. “Bring it on. You know? Shoot. I love anything that’s going to be competitive.” Though he’s still young, Mar- tinez might even take a team- mate to task. He has the per- mission at this point. He has the reputation. He is, as defensive end Khalil Davis said at Big Ten media days, Frost’s “right-hand man.” A young offense with few seniors turns to him. So does a fan base. “It’s always tough to be that

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