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Adrian Martinez: A Boy Among Men (Sorta)

Adrian Martinez’s rapid rise from high school senior to Heisman candidate

Nebraska v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

He shoulda been grind dancing with the Prom Queen at Clovis West High School, but instead he was an early enrollee at Nebraska and was groovin’ with linebacker Mohamed Barry in 40-degree spring scrimmages.

And quarterback Adrian Martinez was not only “dancing” at his inaugural Husker practices, but gettin’ down according to a teammate. Martinez was not looking like a high school senior in Lincoln just trying to adjust to the speed of the game either.

“One time early in spring ball Adrian dropped back for a pass and nothing was open,” former NU teammate Devine Ozigbo said, “so he tucked it and took off through the middle, and with ease he split the defense.”

“Right then I knew this kid was going to be special.”

Martinez did have the highlight moments Ozigbo mentioned when he was giving the defense the business, as they say on the sandlot, as he established himself as the starter, even with other and older scholarship QBs at NU. But he also made plays an older quarterback would make taking what the defense gave him noted a Husker offensive lineman.

“During spring ball, he made the positive plays that you would expect from a veteran guy,” said ex-Husker offensive lineman Cole Conrad. “And made you think ‘WOW, this kid is going to be special.’”

It’s not the first time a young signal caller from Fresno, Calif., has excited Husker football though with his dual-threat skills and had people repeating “special” about him.

The year was 1986 and on Jan. 1, true freshman Steve Taylor had just come off the bench to rally NU in a close Fiesta Bowl loss and had been impressive in limited snaps in the 1985 season. Taylor was just getting his feet set on what would become an All-American career before a lengthy pro career in the CFL and he was seen as more of passing threat than the previous Husker quarterbacks, like Martinez.

While Taylor had long been a Cornhusker target thinking about replacing Turner Gill in the 1980s, Martinez only began to consider NU once Mike Riley was fired as coach. New Coach Scott Frost immediately focused on the Tennessee de-commit after getting hired by AD Bill Moos and the interest was mutual.

“Martinez was sold on the Huskers after watching UCF’s AAC title game. He knew (Scott) Frost was a players’ coach and he signed with Nebraska after a 10-day recruitment,” said longtime national college football writer Dick Weiss and member of the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame. “Frost is a ‘QB Whisperer,’ and like with McKenzine Milton, Martinez is perfect for that up-tempo offense.”

The numbers back up Weiss’s lofty nickname.

In 2018, the Fresno native ranked 12th nationally in total offense per game and was first among freshmen. His average of 295.1 yards of total offense per game was the ninth-highest mark by a frosh in NCAA history and the third-best mark ever by a true freshman QB.

Those numbers are cut and dried with Martinez but his teammates noticed something not as clear early on about the player. In the spring of 2018, while he should have been thinking up senior pranks for Geometry teachers who deserve the worse, his mental make-up was getting noticed by a senior on the team.

“The first time Adrian was given the chance to lead the team as a freshman, his ability to stay calm and collected was impressive,” said former Husker teammate Jerald Foster. “I knew then that he would be fine to lead the team and when we were gone there would be someone to take over as a leader of the program.”

Those mental intangible are usually present in a QB if a team is going to win a conference championship, or even win a division.

However, his dual physical tools are rare and Martinez showed them off in 2018 by completing almost 65% of his passes while throwing for 2,617 yards, ranking second in school history in season completion percentage. Martinez also rushed for 629 yards, the fourth-highest rushing total of any true freshman ballcarrier in school history.

Some of those numbers were helped by a defense that struggled at times but many losses were one-score losses to ranked opponents. Not to mention a rocky start to the season with a set of highly unusual events, including a cancelled game and the ramifications from QB Tristan Gebbia bolting the week of the first game. Gebbia’s departure left NU with only one scholarship QB for much of the season and Martinez came through with that heavy load and has media and fans thinking bigger.

If garnering All-Big Ten and Freshman All-America honors in 2018 were not enough to highlight Martinez, a two-play sequence in the Iowa game shows why Heisman talk for Martinez in 2019 makes sense.

Trailing by eight points late and on the Hawkeye 3-yard line, he made a solid decision on a read option and out-ran the defense, likely looking for a run anyway, to the end zone. Also, two to three yards deep in the end zone and after he slowed, he was hit by an Iowa defender.

Martinez did not appreciate the borderline late hit and basically gave him a spontaneous version of “You mad bro?” on the field with some talk and strut at the Hawkeye player who was trying to look away as Martinez focused on him.

But the next play was the quintessential dual threat quarterback, and clutch player, ripping a defensive coordinator’s heart out.

With the play on the left hash, Martinez dropped back to pass and was under immediate pressure and sprinted away from defenders and running to his right past the right hash, he threw against his body with enough juice over the middle to get between Iowa defenders for the 2-point conversion in the back of the end zone and tie the game.

Unfortunately for Nebraska, Iowa won the game with a field goal late in the fourth quarter. However, Hawk fans left their National Championship-less stadium realizing Iowa will likely never be favorites again versus the Huskers as long as Martinez is at Nebraska, whether the game is in Lincoln, Iowa City or even in their minds.

And Nebraska fans realizing a sixth national championship is not out of the realm for NU in 2020 if the strides as a team from 2017 to 2018 are matched in the next year and half with an All-American candidate in Martinez at the most impactful position.

As for 2019, many feel the Cornhuskers will win the West with a few losses on their record and head to a premier bowl game.

But to reach those team goals, the young QB from northern California realizes he has to make improvements and talked about throwing better on the run in his 2019 Spring Game press conference. Also, he recently took an opportunity to work at the Manning Passing Academy run by the Manning family of QBs and talked to about the experience at the camp.

“I learned a lot about preparation, and just the whole process that Peyton and Eli put themselves through, Martinez said. “I think that is a huge advantage for me, just having that knowledge now and maybe adding to my preparation skills.”

That is not good news for Minnesota as he completed a school-record 86.2 percent of his passes, 25 of 29, for 276 yards and three TDs versus the Gophers, while carrying the ball for a season-high 125 yards on 15 totes. Or individually for Wisconsin, as he threw for a season-high 384 yards and two touchdowns against the Badgers on the road.

However, his passing at Big Ten Media Days in formal wear left a little to be desired as a wayward pass in the banquet hall broke some dishes but reports of a second throw were on target.

As a team, Martinez and Nebraska, will get that second throw in 2019 after an unusual 2018, and the reports will soon be a matter of record.