Nebraska's Resurgence Depends on Sophomore QB Adrian Martinez

After just 12 college games, sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez is in the Heisman conversation. But first, Nebraska needs to win.
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CHICAGO—For a guy who recently purchased his first suit, Adrian Martinez looks comfortable enough. Approaching the platform where he was set to sit and field questions for an hour Thursday afternoon at Big Ten Media Days, the sophomore quarterback balked at the riser he was expected to climb, worried about the “real tight fit” of his Joseph A. Bank ensemble. He was planning to wear the navy suit again the next day, he explained, so it would be no good to split it on the way up to his media availability.

Seams remained intact, and Martinez had the look down. His pin (a red “N”) was perfectly centered on his left lapel. He adjusted his magenta tie at exactly the right moments—heaven forbid it sag even a little. At his first ever media days, at the end of his first ever offseason with an assured starting job, Martinez looked the part of a quarterback bred in a lab, grown in a supersized petri dish to dazzle fans off the field as much as he did on it last fall as a true freshman.

But now, unlike a year ago, college football is watching. Now, the sophomore is one of three players representing the Cornhuskers in Chicago, and come Aug. 31, he’ll no longer be just a true freshman given a chance. He’ll be Nebraska’s quarterback in Year 2, the face of Scott Frost’s rebuild, the arm and legs responsible for a whole lot of preseason hype. Coming off a 4-8 season, the Huskers are a popular pick to win the Big Ten West, and Martinez, after just 12 games, is in the Heisman conversation; right now, Vegas puts his odds at 10-to-1, the same as Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts, behind just Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence.

And that’s great. Unimaginable, even, a year ago. But first, Nebraska needs to win.

There’s plenty of reasons to believe it might. In the last six games of 2018, Frost’s team is 4-2, in large part thanks to Martinez blossoming as the season progressed. But that doesn’t change the team’s final record, or its defense’s performance; coordinator Eric Chinander’s unit allowed opponents an average of 433.5 yards per game, 94th in the FBS. For Martinez to earn a seat in the room in New York in December, his team will have to take advantage of its relatively weaker division in the Big Ten. It can’t ever do what it did last year at Michigan, when it gave up 56 points while scoring just 10. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen, but for now, the program has implicit trust in Martinez. And why shouldn’t it?

Last season, the quarterback threw for 2,617 yards, completing 64.6% of his passes—and he ran for another 629 yards and eight touchdowns. It was a solid season, great for a player who’d never taken a collegiate snap before and who’d missed his entire senior season of high school with a shoulder injury. Those months on the sideline may have contributed to the fact that he ended up at Nebraska; the injury didn’t deter Frost, who while at UCF considered the four-star recruit his favorite quarterback in the class of 2018. When the coach made the move to Nebraska, he recruited Martinez even harder, and something about Frost’s connection to the program clicked with Martinez. “Within probably 10 minutes of my family meeting [him], they just knew that he was the type of guy that they wanted me to be around,” Martinez says. “You know, it was an important decision for me, and I have a lot of faith in that guy. I’m just so thankful to be able to be coached by him… [and] to play under a guy who knows what it takes, who’s coached great quarterbacks and who’s won a national championship here. I don’t think there’s a better combination of things.”

No one in Nebraska’s locker room can better understand the pressures Martinez faces than Frost, who was the Huskers’ quarterback in 1996 and ’97 and brought Nebraska its last national championship. The coach has spoken with the sophomore about the “fishbowl” he lives in, and Martinez says the two have had extensive conversations about the fact that, as he says, “you’re always on, and people will always be looking at you.”

Last year, maybe, they weren’t—at least outside of the city limits of Lincoln. For at least the first six weeks of the season, there wasn’t much worth looking at in eastern Nebraska. But the end of 2018 and an offseason to reflect on Martinez’s production has brought the spotlight back to town. Nebraska hasn’t won its division since 2012, its first season in the Big Ten. Last fall, the West was up for grabs in a way it hasn’t been since it was created in 2014, and this fall, there’s certainly an opening for a team like Frost’s. A division or conference championship matters more to Martinez than any individual accolades, and no matter how much he carried the team through its strong second half of 2018, he knows he needs to improve. Asked where he’s focused most this offseason, he answers in a nanosecond: “I’d point to two areas, really,” he explains. “Turnovers for me, especially, and then red-zone efficiency. Those are things that I think we really need to change and where I can make a difference. I think in Year 2, being a smarter football player and me having a better knowledge, we’ll be able to improve in those areas.”

The quarterback might be his own harshest critic. Though he can isolate his favorite play of last season—a pass to Stanley Morgan, which went for a 67-yard score in Nebraska’s first win of the year, against Minnesota—Martinez says the film that sticks with him is from the losses, the fumbles and interceptions that he knows he needs to minimize in order to get the Cornhuskers bowl eligible this winter. He brings the kind of perspective coaches love, and Frost is unequivocal in his admiration of the player he says feels like a son to him.

“I wouldn't trade our guy for anybody in the country at that position,” Frost says. “On top of being a great player, he's just a great individual, exactly what we're looking for to run our offense. We're probably going to go as far as he can take us this year.”

Frost—who says he played quarterback “not as well as [Martinez] plays it”—adds that he expects to see tangible improvement from his quarterback come fall. He recalls McKenzie Milton, the UCF signal-caller who turned a solid freshman season in 2016 into a phenomenal 2017, when he was the architect of the Knights undefeated season. To replicate what Milton achieved is an unfair goal for Martinez in the Big Ten, but it’s reasonable to believe that Nebraska can ride its quarterback’s success to a resurgence this fall. “As good as he was last year,” Frost says, “if we get a similar jump, we're going to be really strong at that spot.”

For now, though, enjoy Martinez. Enjoy the jokes about his suit splitting and his off-the-cuff analysis of everything from golf (he’s “not that great”) to Kevin Durant (not a fan) to Joseph A. Bank (“shout out to them”). Enjoy the possibility of what he might do this season, or even next year, when as a junior he should have a full set of returning starters surrounding him on offense. Enjoy the fact that Nebraska might be back, but don’t get too far ahead. Enjoy Martinez’s theatrics, which are bound to be the backbone of the program getting there.