Nobody who watched Adrian Martinez quarterback Nebraska as an 18-year-old freshman in 2018 would think of him as a showman.
Martinez dazzled at times with his play and he would throw in an occasional fist-pump or brief celebration after a big play, but by and large he operated very much the way quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco preached: Never too high or too low during the course of the game. Celebration and frustration alike are only acceptable once the outcome is decided.
Martinez was typically calm, cool and collected even as a rookie in the Big Ten. He handled interactions with reporters and fans the same way, with an even-keeled maturity that belied the fact that he was doing this all for the first time.
A couple of moments — both following touchdown runs by the Fresno, California, native — showed a peek at the other side. The first came just before halftime against Ohio State on Nov. 3, when Martinez barreled in over the left side and came to a knee in the end zone, not quite posing but clearly adding a point of emphasis to the touchdown, which gave the Huskers a 21-16 lead going into intermission. The second came three weeks later against Iowa, when he delivered a shot to a Hawkeye in the end zone on NU’s tying fourth-quarter score, staring him down after he knocked the defender back.
“Frosty wants us to have a little bit of that swagger but not to the point where it, how would you say, it comes off like it’s all about me. So he appreciates that,” Verduzco told the Journal Star earlier this month when asked about those two celebrations. “I want (Martinez) to try to walk a fine line between those things. The team wants to see it. But at the same time, don’t be in somebody’s face and be a (jerk).”
The similarities between the two moments — Big Ten road games, critical junctures and, incidentally, both narrow Husker losses — lead one to think that perhaps Martinez recognized them as moments to remind his team (or the other), “We’re here.”
“The other piece of that puzzle is him getting comfortable playing the game in that leadership role within the framework of his own personality,” he said. “Last year, just like it was for (UCF’s McKenzie Milton), ‘This is my first year and I can’t throw my weight around.’ He’s starting to become more comfortable with that.”
Much has been made about Martinez’s leadership growth this spring, but the bones are there going back to last year and even his high school career.
“Adrian recognizes moments,” former Clovis West High coach George Petrissans said. “He’s totally in tune with the game.”
There’s a lot more that goes into leadership than just during games, of course. That’s been Martinez’s focus since last season ended.
“It’s kind of an every minute, every second of practice type thing,” Martinez said. “Constantly trying to encourage guys, keep everybody up and keep the energy up. Sometimes last year I think you fall in the trap of just being so concerned with yourself and what you can do, but really it’s about bringing everyone.”
That part seems to come naturally to the young signal-caller.
“I continually remind him, ‘Hey, if we’re not performing, that stuff is just yakking,’" Verduzco said. "Tom Petrie, a kid I had at Northern Iowa — he was a really good player for us and his redshirt freshman year we went all the way to the semifinals — but Tom was, I don’t want to say quiet, but Tom did his own thing. By his second year, I told him, ‘Hey, you might have to become a little bit of an actor and get outside your shell and a little outside your comfort zone.’”
Martinez may dial it up a bit after a critical touchdown or a big play in a close game, but overall, Petrissans doesn’t think there will be much acting required as the sophomore continues to establish himself as a leader.
“It comes off how it should,” Petrissans said. “It’s pure. It’s completely pure. There’s no bull----.”
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