Imagine standing in an arcade with a big foam hammer, waiting in anticipation for the whack-a-mole to present its next surprise.
There’s five or seven or nine holes that the little varmint might peek out of, and you’re going to need some good fortune to hit it. You might guess right here and there. Maybe by sheer reaction time you get a few more. Maybe you hone your skills so finely that, most of the time, you can light up the mole and the scoreboard with a dramatic "whop!"
Now, imagine how much easier the challenge gets if instead of five or seven or nine options, there were only two. Or perhaps even one.
This, in a simplified way, illustrates the difference that Nebraska coaches think is in store for sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez in his second year at the controls of the Husker offense compared to his first.
"I noticed that in spring and then I’m noticing it even more now in fall camp — some of the things he’s seeing now, there’s something in his memory bank where he says, 'Oh, I’ve seen that before. I know exactly what to do,'" quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said. "Just in that alone, that allows him to process the information that Coach (Scott) Frost wants him to process even that much more quickly than last year."
Two plays that made No. 2 special during his first season with the Huskers:
Verduzco says an initial response — think of that like a first read — takes approximately 0.13 seconds to flash into a quarterback’s brain if he handles it decisively. So now imagine going through two, three and four progressions depending on the defense. Sometimes that will still be necessary, but in other instances, Martinez is learning to skip over or eliminate whole sections of plays based on presnap indicators.
"Let’s say there’s X, Y, Z pieces to the puzzle with regards to the pass game, and I can eliminate that initial response — let’s say it’s two receivers — I can get to three, four and five that much faster," Verduzco said. "That’s a beautiful thing. That’s the beauty and greatness of guys like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. They can eliminate things. …
"The challenge for the quarterback is, in his brain, when he hears it, what’s the image of the pass play and what’s the image of the defensive display against that template? And the faster he can process that thing, the better he is."
Martinez is processing faster than ever.
"It’s just kind of come naturally," Martinez said earlier this month. "You start recognizing things and it’s just accumulated over time. Coach 'Verdu' is 100% right; last year, seeing a lot of those pictures, it was the first time for me and the more you see them, the better you get at kind of dissecting it."
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NU inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud lined up across from some of the best quarterbacks in the game’s history during his NFL career, players such as Manning and Brett Favre, Michael Vick, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady. He shared a locker room, albeit briefly, with Brees.
"All of the really good NFL quarterbacks, the first thing you notice is they’re really, really intelligent and they know exactly what they’re doing," Ruud said. "There’s no NFL star that’s not talented, but the really, really good ones are really intelligent. (Martinez) has got the ability to have intelligence as far as reading the defense and understanding what to do and where to go with the ball, but he can also improvise and make plays on the fly.
"And it’s not because he doesn’t know what to do, but it’s because that’s what the defense dictates to him. He’s a special guy."
Cal graduate transfer Kanawai Noa compared Martinez favorably to former Cal teammate Jared Goff, who was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, saying Martinez has similar arm talent but is the far superior athlete.
When asked if that meant he considered Martinez a future NFL player, Noa smiled and said, "Yeah, that’s no doubt."
Playing quarterback at Nebraska — or eventually in the NFL — isn’t as simple as being good between the white lines. Martinez is already a team leader. He is constantly in demand for media obligations. Lines of fans and autograph-seekers line up when he’s in a public place. And his status has only taken off further since the last time he walked to a class.
"I’m not really sure what to expect as far as walking on campus and what not," Martinez said. "I don’t think it will be too much different than last year for me."
On the field, though, Martinez should be set up for a markedly different experience as a sophomore. He’s not seeing things for the first time. He’s reducing or coming close to eliminating the number of times per game that he lets a guess dictate his action. All the while, he’s put on 10 pounds of muscle and has a year of refinement mechanically under Verduzco’s tutelage.
The old sports cliché is that an athlete gets comfortable when the game starts slowing down for him or her. For Martinez, Year 2 isn’t about the game slowing down. It’s about him speeding up.