Adrian Martinez stood in front of a group of reporters Wednesday morning and recalled a “welcome to college football” type of moment, a good one at that, from shortly after his arrival on Nebraska’s campus in January.
The freshman quarterback took a snap and surveyed the defense in front of him. Senior wide receiver Stanley Morgan quickly worked open.
“I remember throwing him a shallow route or something and he just caught the ball and ‘shoo,’ took off down the field,” Martinez said with a wave of his hand to drive the point home. “I’ve never been around a guy that was like that.”
Must make it feel pretty easy sometimes, right? Maybe for fleeting moments, but playing quarterback in the Big Ten, particularly as a first-timer, is no easy task.
That’s the challenge ahead of the Nebraska offense for the fall, though. Whether Martinez, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia or sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch wins the starting job, the Huskers are going to try to start the Scott Frost era on a positive note with what looks like a deep, explosive set of skill position players and a big, inexperienced question mark under center.
There are undoubtedly other unknowns on offensive coordinator Troy Walters’ side of the ball. Can NU improve its offensive line play by a solid margin? Can it find a reliable tight end option after Jack Stoll? Can the running back group, now chock full of options, live up to its suddenly high billing? Can enough of the host of young players and newcomers meld together enough to deliver a payoff to eight months of rapid-fire roster turnover?
But if you’re looking for the floor and the ceiling for Nebraska’s offense in 2018, quarterback play is the biggest remaining variable.
Frost’s offense is predicated on making the defense protect every part of the field and getting the ball to playmakers in ways that stress the defense’s capability to do so.
One of the best ways to do that is to have a quarterback who can hurt a defense in multiple ways like Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams did at Oregon and like McKenzie Milton did at Central Florida.
Particularly with young players, however, there’s also the risk of piling too much on the plate. Here’s how Gebbia described the job Wednesday.
“We’ve got quarterbacks that will basically be point guards,” he said. “That’s what we know: Get the ball to playmakers. Stan makes great plays. JD (Spielman) makes great plays. Don’t do too much, just play your game.”
That’s not exactly the dreaded “game manager” label, but it also doesn’t exactly conjure memories of the way Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and led the Ducks to the National Championship game in 2014.
Of course it doesn’t. Mariota was not only an atypical talent, but he also had three years in the system — the final two with Frost calling plays.
Frost on Friday acknowledged that the offensive staff will try to provide as much structure as possible for a young signal-caller this fall, though that only gets you so far.
“Any time, over the course of the game, there’s going to be plays that show up, they just happen, where the quarterback is going to have to try to get out of the pocket and make something happen,” he said. “Our job as coaches is going to be to give them as many plays where the decision can be quick and decisive as we can, particularly when they’re young.
“So we want them to get the ball out fast, make fast decisions and then if stuff breaks down and they have to create, those are the times for that.”
Playmaking ability is important, but this is why Frost says being a “quick blinker,” a fast information processor, is the top priority for a quarterback in his system. And it’s why on Friday he was so emphatic about the need for improvement in that department.
“Adrian is great at times and at other times he looks like it’s moving a little too fast for him,” Frost said Friday. “He’s got to pick up his pace physically and mentally. At times it’s tremendous and at other times, when he’s not quite sure, it’s a little tentative.
“That’s the case for every quarterback that you get, particularly in this scheme.”
Frost knows that well. This will be the third time in four seasons he operates with a quarterback new to his system.
Of the previous full-time starters Frost has coached — Milton, Adams and Mariota — Milton provides perhaps the cleanest comparison.
Mariota started as a redshirt freshman in 2012, but Frost coached receivers at Oregon that year.
Adams was a graduate transfer in 2015 after three prolific seasons at Eastern Washington, so he had extensive experience when he arrived in Eugene even though he was new to Frost’s offense.
Milton had an even steeper learning curve at UCF in 2016 than the Husker youngsters now because he didn’t have the benefit of spring ball. In 10 games as a freshman, Milton completed 57.7 percent of his passes, averaged 5.9 per attempt and had 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. UCF averaged 28.8 points per game (No. 66 in the FBS) and 4.7 yards per play. Those numbers are all easily the lowest that Frost has overseen in five years as a play-caller.
As a sophomore, Milton jumped significantly, completing 67.1 percent for 10.2 per attempt and racking up 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions as UCF led the nation at 48.2 points per game and averaged 7.5 yards per play.
He also cut down from 25 sacks in 2016 to 11 in 2017.
More broadly, Frost’s five years of calling plays has resulted in offenses that finished fifth, fourth, fifth, 66th and first in scoring. Those offenses have averaged at least 7 yards per play except for 2016. They’ve all hit at least 531 yards per game except 2016, which languished at 350.8.
“The scheme is the same and the results speak for themselves,” Walters said this week. “Now it’s just about the players and getting the players in the right positions. About making sure they embrace what we’re doing and they know the standards.”
Frost and Walters have liked the talent the Huskers possess at wide receiver since they arrived. They’ve fortified the Morgan/Spielman/Tyjon Lindsey trio with depth and speed and versatility. Just Friday, Frost said of his running backs, “I think we’re starting to get to a point where we’ve got some home run hitters in the backfield.”
The numbers and Frost’s comments paint a clear picture on why decision-making is so critical at this juncture. The Huskers don’t need Mariota to trot onto the Memorial Stadium turf on Sept. 1, but they don’t want a game manager either.
Somewhere right in the middle looks like it would position NU to be dangerous sooner rather than later.