Moments after a spirited but disappointing 36-31 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, Nebraska’s 18-year-old quarterback summed up what could have been seen as a game chock full of silver linings about as succinctly as possible.
“We came into this game expecting to win and we didn’t,” Adrian Martinez said. “At no point is losing acceptable.”
Three days later, back in Lincoln, the Huskers’ 38-year-old defensive coordinator was informed that head coach Scott Frost thought the loss was the defense’s best overall effort so far this fall.
Erik Chinander drew on the rookie quarterback’s words.
“I heard bits and pieces of Adrian’s postgame press conference, and I’m with him. Losing is never acceptable," he said before expanding into more general thoughts.
Maybe in and of itself, neither comment is earth-shattering in nature, but the exchange illustrates a pattern that’s becoming clearer and clearer as the 2018 season enters the final three weeks: When Martinez talks, everybody listens.
In his debut season, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has already compiled a laundry list of impressive physical accomplishments. He’s likely to break the NU freshman record for total offense this week and is on track to put together just the sixth 3,000-yard year in school history regardless of class. He’s led the Husker offense to 450-plus yards of offense six straight weeks, tied for the most in school history. He’s won Big Ten freshman of the week honors two of the past three weeks. So on and so forth.
But while anybody who watches a game can see Martinez’s football talents on display, you can’t cut up video clips of leadership. More and more, though, Martinez’s growth in that department peeks through when players and coaches talk.
Martinez himself has allowed that he’s grown more comfortable speaking up this fall, but typically gives credit to older players as team leaders. Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco preaches to his young pupil to focus on executing his responsibilities. And yet, after losing to the Buckeyes, senior left guard Jerald Foster made an eye-opening comment regarding his quarterback.
“He’s somebody that you can feel the positive off of him. You can feel the competitive edge and he’s going to push us,” Foster said. “Being a senior, an old guy, having a freshman kind of pushing us forward, it’s wild.”
It has quickly become the norm in Lincoln, though.
“It definitely has expanded more as he’s gaining confidence, not only in himself, but in us as we have proved that we can protect him, as we have proved we can open up holes for him to run through,” senior center Tanner Farmer said. “He has been great with encouragement. Sometimes I have a bad snap and I don’t feel very good about those bad snaps, but he’s right there and encouraging me and lifting me up, even though I’m almost five years his senior.
“He’s a leader for me and we’re able to lead each other and help lead each other through these hard times.”
Martinez’s leadership, like everything else this year for the Huskers, has grown gradually, but the signs have been there since spring ball.
After the spring game, redshirt freshman tight end Austin Allen copped to being nervous in front of 86,000-plus but added, “I’d look at Adrian and he’s all calm and that really calmed me down.” Then Martinez came out of his shell a bit more during a summer visit from The Program. He navigated a heated preseason quarterback battle with aplomb, building trust with his teammates even though he didn’t win the job officially until the last week of August.
Now he’s naturally growing into a leadership role but doing so, seemingly, without stepping on any toes.
“He’s always been a very mature guy even when he first came here, but he’s definitely grown as a leader,” senior running back Devine Ozigbo said. “He’s more vocal. He’s down to talk to people one-on-one. He does all the little things that as a quarterback you’d want him to do.”