Shortly after Adrian Martinez’s prolific freshman season ended, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost did not shy away from what he expected to happen next.
“He’s going to be a lot better next year,” Frost said moments after the Huskers lost to Iowa on a last-second, Black Friday field goal. “There’s just no doubt about it.”
Improvement can come in many ways. Martinez will have another year of strength and conditioning under his belt. He’ll be another year removed from the reconstructive shoulder surgery he had in high school. He has 11 games under his belt. So on and so forth.
“Obviously, my overall game needs to improve,” Martinez said. “Certain decisions I made in key situations, I would love to take back. That happened in a few different games, and having that experience has allowed me to get better and better.”
In quarterback play — and football in general — the devil is in the details. And there’s perhaps nobody better to talk detail with than NU quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.
The veteran assistant has been through this process many times. His previous star pupil, Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton, jumped from promising rookie to Heisman Trophy contender as a sophomore in part because of a relatively major offseason change in his delivery.
For Martinez, whose biggest mechanical adjustment came during fall camp last year when Verduzco helped him improve the initiation of his throwing motion — the “cha-ching,” if you’ll recall — there’s no major overhaul required.
So No. 2 will look about the same when he trots onto the field Aug. 31 against South Alabama, except he’ll likely be free of the knee brace that he sported for almost all of 2018.
“There’s some small little detail things with his feet that we need to clean up that are quick fixes but will take some time so that they just become, quote unquote, second nature for him so he doesn’t need to think about those things anymore,” Verduzco said. “They’ll still raise their ugly head every now and then. They don’t cause serious problems, but getting those things cleaned up will make him more efficient and more effective.”
Martinez completed 64.6 percent of his passes as a freshman, averaged a solid 7.5 yards per attempt and threw 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He made some rookie mistakes and fumbled the ball too often, but he also finished 12th in the country at 295 offensive yards per game, rushed for eight more touchdowns and set several NU freshman and school records.
For every head-turning throw — a back-corner-of-the-end-zone dime to JD Spielman or an 18-yard opposite-hash out route to Mike Williams — Martinez would also occasionally either get a little off-line or flat-out miss much easier attempts. Even still, he finished with the highest completion rate of any regular Husker starter since Joe Ganz (67.9 percent) in 2008.
“Some of those throws that maybe we missed ball placementwise last year aren’t going to be (missed)," Verduzco said of Martinez’s footwork progress. “When his feet are better, his eyes will be better. He’ll get to his initial response faster. So just cleaning up those sorts of things will be a tremendous help for him."
Verduzco explained that, with Milton, a relatively major change couldn’t be made during the season, lest the young signal-caller think too much during games. With Martinez, nobody’s pulling the reins, but there’s also a sense that you can’t put the cart before the horse.
For instance, a reporter asked if perhaps Martinez could be more decisive with when he runs — he danced in the middle of the field at times last year, leading to at least a pair of his fumbles — but Verduzco explained the natural progression that must occur.
“You’re working on so many things at once and you have to take care of things as they move forward. Take care of the broad strokes (first), so on and so forth,” Verduzco said. “We’ve got the eyebrows on the statute. I don’t know that we have the colors on the eyes yet, but that’s coming. One of the things is being able to get the ball down to his check-downs. That will help him with his completion ratio. But if you press those things too early in a young guy’s career, before you know it he becomes paralyzed.
“So the efficiency of his feet and getting through ‘XYZ,’ now he feels more comfortable to just bring the ball down to my back or bring the ball out to my swing. That’s certainly going to help with his getting one more completion.”
It’s a pretty good-looking statue so far, and it’s no wonder the Huskers are excited about what it might look like as those little details continue to fall into place.