2021 brings a lot of unknowns to the Nebraska football team. What’s crazy to think about is Nebraska returning a 4 year starter at the most important position on the field, who was a 2018 Freshman All-American, and fans still not knowing what exactly we have. I’ve always been a Martinez fan, I think he gets a bad rap based on the situations he has had to deal with. He’s lost his best WR from the previous year every single season he’s been here (Morgan, Spielman, Robinson), he’s had some injury issues, we moved a guy to get the ball to him that may not quite have been ready yet but we were willing to deal with the bad on that for the ceiling he gave us, and an OL that may have underachieved a bit the past few seasons. But I also understand where some of the angst from fans comes from as he’s been a Heisman darkhorse candidate and seemingly has struggled to get over the improvement hump from year 1. I get it, you could convince me of things with him either way.
All reports are that this dude is back to his 2018 self, with a 4 year knowledge of the playbook. The issue comes back to the fact though that he’s our leading returning rusher (we lost 3 of our top 4 rushers from 2020) and the next closest who isn’t a QB is Marvin Scott III, who didn’t even get to 100 yards last year. We lose Wandale at WR (and RB for that matter) so our leading returning pass catcher is Austin Allen, who fans said we didn’t use the TEs as much as we should be last season either. However, I think we are in a much better spot for 2021 for offensive ability than we were in 2020 (my next preview will be WR, that will be fun to dive into). I think people forget that we changed coordinators, and then barely got a spring practice to get used to the differences (I know this is mostly Frosts offense, but a change in coordinator does matter). What it will come down to is how quick can Martinez mesh with his new RBs and WRs. That’s something that no camp report from anyone can tell us. And as much as anyone tells you how great these new toys are for Frost/Lubick/Martinez, if they aren’t on the same page or don’t pick up the offense, it doesn’t matter at all. The unknown is crazy with a four year starter returning.
So that takes us to really the controversy or talking points for the QB room. Unfortunately we probably have our worst depth here since 2018 when Gebbia transferred out and it was the Martinez show. I remember people trying to spin Vedral transferring before 2020 as a positive because “he knew McCaffrey was going to be starting possibly this year and he left because he’d been bypassed.” We now know that wasn’t the truth, he wanted to play and start somewhere. Tough to fault a kid there. We also know that McCaffrey was a pretty decent change of pace QB, but I don’t know if he will thrive at the QB spot. I think he has unique abilities that can really make him trouble at Rice, but he’s gone. So we are left with walk-on Matt Masker, second year player Logan Smothers (who didn’t get a spring in 2020 and barely and reps in the fall of 2020), and true freshman scholarship player Henrich Haarberg.
Again, we are as thin as we’ve ever been here. But let’s be real, unless you are Bama, Clemson, Ohio State, if you are worried about if your backup can get the job done you might be in trouble during the season anyway. It’s up to your starter. From what i’ve been hearing, Smothers it exactly what we recruited after Martinez won the job as a true freshman and having Verduzco as the coach. And that is, get the most athletic QB out there and teach him how to throw with his athleticism. I am not a Verdu fan, but his coaching and recruiting pitch makes sense to guys like McCaffrey and Smothers. Guys who struggle to throw naturally, Verduzco can say “70% of the time you aren’t setting your feet and throwing anyway, so I teach you how to biomechanically throw properly while on the run and while you use your athleticism.” Kids like McCaffrey and Smothers eat that up because other programs are either telling them they are going to need to work on QB skills, or worse yet move positions. At Nebraska, they are afforded the possibility to further develop the skill that has all the teams interested in the first place at the position they are hoping to play.
I get the concept, I just don’t know if it’s working. I would say Martinez is about the same as he was his freshman year, McCaffrey is out, and Smothers is TBD. You now have Haarberg with a better arm than Smothers but less athleticism, and the X factor is Masker who knows this offense better than any other QB on the roster not named Martinez. I think our staff figured out that throwing accuracy was pretty important, possibly even more important than athleticism. Whoever wins the backup job in 2021 is going to have a long road ahead of them to keep that job once AMart leaves. I think it depends on if there is something that happens to #2, how long he’s out for. A few series or the rest of the game, maybe Smothers. Longer than that, probably Masker or Haarberg.
Bottom line, we have a 4 year returning starter that was a Freshman All-American during his career here. I get why Frost is riding with him. We obviously go as far as Martinez takes us. After that we have a multitude of options depending what you’re looking for. Do you want the guy that has a ton of knowledge of the playbook? Do you want a run threat that can break the game open? Or do you want a pretty accurate passer with a decently high ceiling but still learning a bit?
LIFE AFTER MARTINEZ
So let’s talk hypothetical (which I hate). But in college football you have to be forward thinking or you get caught with your pants down and thin thin thin! Let’s say we get to 9 or 10 wins, that probably means Martinez is a beast, all-conference at minimum, he is taking the next step and declaring for the draft. Frost and Nebraska are setting up for what most fans were clamoring for in the 2021 recruiting class that I told them wouldn’t be happening, and that is a grad transfer QB. As soon as Martinez is gone, bet the mortgage on that happening. But here is the issue, i’m not sure I see 9-10 wins for us. So let’s say we get to 7-5, Martinez is what he’s been for us which would mean more than likely a free agent signing… what do we do? Do we hope year 5 would be different than year 1-4? I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, but what i’m getting at, is no good grad transfer is coming here unless the starting position is open for the taking. Which is why we didn’t go after one in 2021. Something to ponder there. And again, i’m a Martinez fan, so I hope he crushes it and gets a draft grade that is favorable.
On deck…. Wide Receiver Breakdown!