As the 2018 season progressed, Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez made strides in many departments.
A mechanical adjustment made during fall camp to improve the thrust with which he threw the ball continued to refine. A knee injury suffered Sept. 7 against Colorado improved steadily. Martinez saw more and more defensive looks, played more and more snaps, made more and more plays.
The numbers show the progress.
Martinez had just 10 offensive yards against Michigan on Sept. 22 – his first game back from the knee injury against an opponent that had NU thoroughly outmanned across the board — after compiling 304 in his debut against the Buffaloes.
Over Nebraska’s final eight Big Ten games, the Fresno, California, native averaged 340.8 offensive yards per game, well above his full-season average of 295, and scored 20 of his 25 touchdowns. Those numbers include three 400-plus yard outings but also a wind and snow-blown win against Michigan State that saw Martinez finish 16-of-37 passing with 163 offensive yards and no touchdowns.
As Martinez’s game progressed, head coach Scott Frost continued to put more on his plate. That tandem — the same duo that drives much of the offseason sentiment that the Huskers can make a big jump in 2019 — grew together. Frost is widely considered one of the best play-callers in the country, but having a quarterback that not only can execute the play but also understand why he called it — or even anticipate what’s coming — only enhances the operation.
Like everything for Martinez, that’s been a learning process.
“It’s grown a lot. Frost has a unique way of calling plays, the way he pairs certain routes together and just concepts, it takes some getting used to,” Martinez said. “The first game I think we were both kind of conservative with each other, and then as the season progressed, I think he got more comfortable with my abilities and I got more comfortable with the calling and we were on the same page.
“Moving forward, I think we’re going to stay on the same page, and I think I felt that this spring. Just a real understanding of what was expected of me out there.”
When Frost and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco talk about wanting “quick blinkers,” or quarterbacks that process information quickly, they don’t just mean from snap to whistle. Reading coverages and making quick decisions is imperative. The process of analyzing game situation, play call, matchups, tendencies and more, and building all of that into decision-making is a career-long one.
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“I remember my senior year, we used to have the formation signaled into us at Nebraska and then Coach (Tom) Osborne would run a play in with, usually, a receiver that may or may not be able to give me the entire play or spit it out,” Frost said. “Some of the stuff I heard didn’t even sound like a play.
“But by my senior year when I got the formation and knew the down and distance and situation in the game, I bet I could have guessed 80 or 90 percent of the time what play was coming in from Coach.”
There are no more mealy mouthed receivers running plays into a huddle in Lincoln. Everything gets signaled in from the sideline. But you can imagine the way in which being on the same page with Frost helps Martinez. An understanding of what play or sequence fits leads to a greater grasp of what exactly Frost is trying to accomplish beyond just getting yards — exploit a matchup, push the pace, set something else up, beat a blitz, put something on film for the future, break a tendency. You understand that a split-second faster, you’re onto the next item on the checklist a split-second faster.
“We have five million pass plays, but we only have six categories of safety dependent or safety independent plays. That’s it,” Verduzco told the Journal Star this spring. “Once (the quarterback) learns those, shoot, what does Coach Frost want to call next or what do you want to make up?”
Said Frost, “I think that takes awhile. I saw it happen with McKenzie (Milton at Central Florida), and I’m always reluctant to talk about that. But Year One, I’m thinking about setting up this play with this play and if we run this a couple times then hit them with this, then we’ve got that. Year One with McKenzie, I’m not sure that really clicked. Year Two, he knew what we were doing.
“Adrian had a really good grasp of that Year One, but I expect us to be more on the same page this year.”
Growth in Year Two for Martinez and for NU can come in many ways. Some — like literal growth — will be more apparent, while others are more subtle. A furthering of the mind meld between play-caller and play-executor will be as important as any for Martinez.
“I think that’s a vital part of playing the quarterback position, having that chemistry with the play-caller,” he said. “You need to know why they’re calling that play, what they’re thinking and the reason and what you think they would want you to do with the ball, but kind of within the framework of your own playing personality, of course.”