Nebraska's Martinez enters senior season with plenty at stake
CHICAGO -- The numbers dotting Taylor Martinez's résumé paint a clear picture: the Nebraska senior is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in program history. Martinez is the Huskers' all-time leader in passing yards (6,591), passing touchdowns (46) and total offense (9,449), among other statistical categories, and he enters his final season in Lincoln with his sights set on leading Nebraska to a second consecutive Big Ten championship game.
At a glance, Martinez's legacy seems fairly straightforward, but his career is far more complex than the stats suggest. Over his three years as Nebraska's starter, Martinez has been a subject of constant debate for fans and media alike; his play has been alternatively brilliant and maddening.
"Anybody's going to say anything about whatever they want," Martinez said at Big Ten media days. "That's all I can pretty much say."
As a freshman in 2010, Martinez burst onto the scene as one of the nation's most exciting young quarterbacks. "T-Magic" quickly emerged as a dark horse Heisman candidate, and though he was hampered by ankle and toe issues late in the season, his future appeared bright. As a sophomore in 2011, his hype quickly began to fade. He adjusted his throwing motion to cope with lingering injuries, and his mechanics were blasted; "arm-punts", "shot-puts" and "groundballs" were some of the more common pejoratives used to describe his passing style. Martinez racked up 2,089 passing yards, 874 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in his second-year campaign, but his completion rate dropped from 59.2 to 56.3 percent.
"He played with some injuries that would have sidelined most kids for the rest of the year," Casey Martinez, Taylor's father, said. "He hung in there, but when he was playing injured, he had to accommodate some of his mechanics in order to reduce the pain he had. It's hard to be perfect as a thrower when your limbs are hurting."
In 2012, Martinez turned in one of the most statistically significant seasons of any quarterback in the country, finishing first in the Big Ten in total offense while leading Nebraska to comeback wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern and Penn State. Yet the criticism never completely went away. Martinez still committed too many costly turnovers. His throwing motion -- while evincing considerable improvements thanks to offseason workouts with personal quarterback coach Steve Calhoun -- remained widely panned.
Entering 2013, Martinez is polarizing subject: His stats reveal a prolific dual-threat playmaker, but he's rarely mentioned among the top quarterbacks in the game.
"The media says a lot of stuff, and a lot of it isn't true," Martinez said. "A lot of it is a roller coaster ride. You just have to go with it and whatever happens, happens."
Final impressions tend to stick. As Martinez looks toward his senior season, he has an opportunity to finish his career with a flourish.
Nebraska heads into this fall with all the makings of a conference championship contender. It brings back seven offensive starters, including the entire offensive line, and features a trio of veteran receivers and one of the more potent running back tandems in the league.
However, the Huskers' prospects wouldn't seem nearly as encouraging if not for the return of Martinez, who could be poised to have his strongest season to date.
"I think he's going to be better than he was a year ago," said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. "I'm hoping he makes the same jump he did from his junior year to his senior year as he did his sophomore year to his junior year. If he does that, it could be scary."
It might be hard to remember now, considering its 70-31 blowout loss to Wisconsin in last season's Big Ten title game, but Nebraska fielded one of the most explosive offenses in the country in 2012. The Huskers ranked first in the Big Ten in total offense (460.8 yards per game) and second in scoring offense (34.8 points per game), respectively, and Martinez was the centerpiece of the attack. After another offseason working with Calhoun, his passing accuracy -- which jumped from 59 percent to 62 percent last year -- should only improve this season.
"He has plenty of room for improvement and he knows that," said Quincy Enunwa, a senior receiver who caught 42 passes for 470 yards last season. "He's working with different coaches, staying after practice and that's why we appreciate him as a leader -- because he's putting the work in to lead us to a championship."
Martinez will be bolstered by players like Enunwa, receiver Kenny Belly, second-team All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah and first-team All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long. Factor in Martinez's own explosive running ability (he rushed for 1,019 yards last year) and there's no telling how good the offense can be.
"Probably our strong point will be up front. There's a lot of experience there," Martinez said. "And we have a lot of talent on the outside. We have a lot of people coming back."
Said Pelini: "I like our guys across the board on offense. We have a lot of talent there."
The biggest concerns for Nebraska lie on defense, where Pelini and coordinator John Papuchis will need to replace six starters from a defense that ranked seventh in the Big Ten in total defense. The Huskers also need to cut down on turnovers; in 2012, their -12 turnover margin tied for last in the conference.
Yet if Martinez helps the offense fulfill its potential, many of the program's other problems could be masked. He's shown he has the natural talent. This fall, he appears to have the necessary playmakers around him. His job will be made easier by a schedule that features two seemingly favorable Leaders Division crossover opponents (Purdue and Illinois), five consecutive home games to start the season and just two eminently difficult conference road tests (at Michigan and at Penn State).
The Huskers have the pieces to simply outscore opponents. Asked if he would like to see Nebraska play games in the 30-point range this season, Martinez said, "Hopefully. Hopefully more than that."
When questioned whether his final season has any special meaning, Martinez demurs. He doesn't view 2013 as a "legacy-defining" season, maintaining he will leave Lincoln happy regardless of the individual stats he compiles as a senior.
"I've had a good career at Nebraska so far," he said. "So I just gotta keep playing, keep trying to win them all, and everything else will fall in place."
Martinez insists neither he nor his team has set any goals or win thresholds for the upcoming season. Instead, he explains his expectations with the oldest of football clichés. "We just have to take one game at a time," he said.
Still, however reluctant Martinez may be to admit it, this is his final act. He's gone from hyped to criticized to potentially overlooked, a career arc that's been simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.
If nothing else, Casey believes his son has at least one goal in mind heading into this fall.
"Knowing Taylor, he wants to win a championship," Casey said. "No one in the country wants to win a championship more than he does."