Is Taylor Martinez maturing into a team leader? Husker coaches and players are talking that way. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Last week at a church fundraiser in Omaha, offensive coordinator Tim Beck called Taylor Martinez the "biggest surprise" of the summer. Today at Big Ten Media Day, head coach Bo Pelini twice answered questions about the sophomore quarterback:
"He’s had a great offseason," Pelini said. "Tremendous spring. Phenomenal summer. He’s more engaged as a leader. He’s really taken upon himself to grow in that area. I think he’s becoming a tremendous leader on our football team. Holding his teammates accountable. Holding himself accountable. I think he’s poised to have a great year."
When it comes to Taylor Martinez, Husker fans could be certified manic-depressive. The first half of the season, fans couldn't hype him enough. People made up nicknames like "T-Magic" or "T-Mart". One fan even started a Twitter account to promote the redshirt freshman quarterback for the Heisman Trophy. Then just before halftime against Missouri, Martinez took a hit on leg and came up limping. He didn't play the second half, and only played as a decoy for a couple of plays against Iowa State. The rest of the season, it was a different Martinez. The injury robbed him of his speed, which in turn robbed him of his confidence. Then came the Texas A&M game, where he was injured again and got a verbal sideline scolding from Bo Pelini for calling his father. In the Big XII Championship, he threw an costly interception that could have given the Huskers a commanding lead, then wilted under the pressure from the Sooners. By that time, some fans had come up with new nicknames for him: "T-ragic", "T-ribble". Some actually hoped he'd transfer.
"He’s just out there chilling with us. He’s just one of the guys. He's just doing his part to be a leader on the team, and he's doing a great job at it. I couldn't be more proud of him."
"He's no longer a kid. He's grown into a man."
What a freshman season. What a wild ride. So which one is the real Martinez? The one that exploited bad defenses, or the one that wilted in the national spotlight? I'd suggest neither. Remember, we're talking about a redshirt freshman who only started to play quarterback as a high school junior. He's a raw talent who relies on instincts more than his understanding of the offense. Against Kansas State, that was good enough. Against Oklahoma, that was no where near enough.
I remember watching Tommie Frazier lose to Iowa State as a freshman. I remember redshirt freshman Eric Crouch have his struggles. Martinez got too much credit for his amazing performances early in the season, and too much blame later in the season. Look at that Holiday Bowl performance; it wasn't Martinez who fumbled the snap, giving Washington the ball deep in Nebraska territory. When you consider the performance of the offensive line and I-backs in that rematch, Martinez was far from the biggest problem in San Diego.
So what does it mean when we hear all this talk in the summer? It's what we want to hear, but does it have any substance behind it? Is it an attempt to pump up the ego of an insecure player, or to convince doubting teammates to believe in Martinez? Is it an attempt to ward off criticism from fans and buy time for Martinez to get his groove back? Or is it exactly what the coaches and teammates say it is: a freshman maturing into the quarterback's job.
We can debate it all August long, but the truth is, we really won't know until the team hits the field and we can see things in our own eyes. We'll get a bit of an idea against Fresno State, and a decent look against Washington. But the acid test will be at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on October 1st.
Until then, it's all just talk.