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Steven M. Sipple: Martinez's intangibles part of reason he's moved toward top of B1G's QB list
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Steven M. Sipple: Martinez's intangibles part of reason he's moved toward top of B1G's QB list

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Nebraska vs. Michigan State, 9.25

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez warms up on the sideline against Michigan State in the first half Sept. 25 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

Parker Gabriel shares the four most interesting things from Scott Frost's post-practice press conference on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

Is Adrian Martinez the best quarterback in the Big Ten?

Because of his strong play during the past four weeks, it’s become a perfectly legitimate question.

He has without question moved toward the top of the list.

He’s making critical plays and putting up excellent numbers — he easily leads Big Ten quarterbacks in rushing yards and ranks first in quarterback rating (11th nationally) — even while playing behind an offensive line that provides all the protection of a mud fence in a hurricane.

At this moment, though, as Nebraska seeks to rebound from a crushing loss at Michigan State, his intangible qualities also are of enormous value.

He’s a stabilizer — confident and mature — at a position where such qualities are integral.

And, yes, his poise rubs off on teammates, some of whom may be wavering in the wake of Nebraska’s 2-3 start (0-2 Big Ten).

“No doubt about it,” Husker offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said of Martinez’s sizable impact as a leader. “Leaders like that are your best coaches. He rubs off on the offense and defense because you see how he handles adversity, especially last year: being in the lineup, not being in the lineup. He was benched and kept the same good attitude.”

After sitting out the entire Penn State game last season, and most of the Illinois game, Martinez regained his starting spot from Luke McCaffrey and enjoyed something of a surge in the final four games.

“Everyone goes through adversity, and he’s the best example of all,” Lubick said. “He got benched when he probably shouldn’t have gotten benched. You see how he handled that. You see how he practices. I mean, everyone sees the plays he’s making. But you don’t make those plays just by showing up.”

Parker Gabriel give a two-minute rundown of opponent Northwestern on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

After struggling in this season’s opener, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Martinez has stacked together four excellent performances. He currently ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 324.6 yards. Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa leads the pack at 343.3.

In fact, if you’re trying to determine the Big Ten’s best quarterback, Tagovailoa just might be the choice. The 5-11, 205-pound junior leads the league in passing efficiency as the Terrapins have bolted to a 4-0 start.

Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan has slid far back into the pack after a spectacular 2019 season, and it’s too early to get a good read on freshman C.J. Stroud of Ohio State.

It’s possible I would take Tagovailoa over Martinez — it largely depends on what you’re looking for in a QB — but there’s no way I would take Penn State’s Sean Clifford over Nebraska’s fourth-year starter. Martinez is a much better overall athlete than Clifford, and Martinez obviously has refined his passing acumen while retaining all of his explosiveness as a runner.

And then there are the intangibles.

“It’s Adrian’s preparation — the guys see it,” Lubick said. “It’s very contagious. Our best player on offense is making all these plays, and his teammates see all he does in practice. They see him show up early. They see him wanting to throw extra passes to the freshmen. They see him being the last one to leave. They see a coach getting on him, and it’s, ‘Yes, sir, Coach.’ They see him take in the coaching when he makes a mistake. It’s him owning it. It’s, ‘Yep, that’s on me, that’s my bad, that’s my throw.’

“One of the biggest things of being a leader is being humble and human. He’s that guy. Our kids all see that, and I think they learn from it. It’s inspiring to us as coaches.”

It has to be comforting to them as well. With Nebraska coach Scott Frost now in his fourth season, Husker fans want to see discernible progress that results in wins.

Nebraska head football coach Scott Frost speaks after practice on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

“When you really find out about true leaders is when things are not going well, when you don’t have the results,” Lubick said. “Obviously, the Michigan State loss hurt him as much as it hurt everyone else. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself. He didn’t make any excuses. He would be the first to take ownership.

“If you blame someone else and say, ‘It’s not my fault,’ it never gets fixed. He’s the poster boy for being humble and saying, ‘How can I do my job better and make everyone else better?’ So, other guys look at him and say, ‘Shoot, man, if our best player’s doing that, I should be that way.’”

Don't mistake his humility for a lack of confidence. He's plenty confident, in both himself and the unit he leads.

He says his confidence in large part stems from hard work he put in with teammates during the summer.

It stems from all he’s learned from his position coach, Mario Verduzco.

He remains very confident in the system, he says.

“Take that however you want,” he said, obviously referring to the fact Nebraska ranks 79th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 27.6 points per game.

Without a 52-7 win against Fordham of the FCS factored in, NU is averaging 21.5 points.

Things aren’t perfect — he didn't see an open receiver streaking up the seam on the first play of overtime Saturday. But there’s something else we should note about Martinez. He’s having fun. Maybe you noticed him staring up at Michigan State’s student section after he scored a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. 

“I was just laughing at them,” he said with a smile. “They had been talking all this smack. But, hey, it’s college football. You have to love it. I do. I try to enjoy it and just be there in those moments.”

He’s also there in the unpleasant moments, the same guy — leading in a way that inspires even his coaches.

Contact the writer at ssipple@journalstar.com or 402-473-7440. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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