Steven M. Sipple: With Stepp shelved, a Husker fan’s mind may wander to unpleasant places

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez is attended to after going down with an injury against Colorado on Sept. 8, 2018, at Memorial Stadium.

Things I know, and things I think I know: 

Your mind might wander to relatively dark places if you happen to witness a Nebraska football practice in which the Huskers have only two scholarship running backs on hand. 

That was the case Wednesday morning, and my mind immediately drifted to NU’s opposing defensive coordinators.

Warning: This conversation isn’t for the fainthearted.

Fast forward to autumn. If I’m a defensive coordinator facing Nebraska, I’m telling my defenders to — how do I put this politely? — hit quarterback Adrian Martinez hard, then hit him again harder. If he’s woozy or flat-out unable to function, the chances to defeat the Huskers likely would rise exponentially, unless one of NU’s young and untested backup quarterbacks ascends to a high level quickly. 

Or there’s always the transfer portal. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is hoping Martinez’s backups show enough this spring to keep Husker coaches from having to delve into the portal for help. 

Nobody’s saying opposing defenses will intentionally try to injure Martinez. Then again, you might recall a Colorado linebacker in 2018 giving Martinez’s right knee and ankle a firm twist in the pile. Martinez missed the following game. It’s a brutal sport. Stuff happens. Martinez, a fourth-year junior, has battled injuries every season he’s been in Lincoln.

Which brings us back to the running back position. If there’s one good way to relieve pressure on Martinez — and perhaps keep him healthy — it’s by developing a running game that leans hard on running backs. What a concept. Frost says it’s an emphasis this spring. How could it not be?

Bottom line, Nebraska’s uncertainty at the quarterback position behind Martinez makes the running back position that much more important. Last season, Martinez led the team in rushing attempts (91) and rushing yards (521). If the Huskers’ rushing game begins to trend in that direction again in 2021, it likely would signify trouble. 

Think about what Martinez said last week. If his team would’ve voted to play in a bowl game, he said, he might’ve been too banged up to play. That’s after only eight games, two of which he didn’t start and one of which he didn’t play at all. 

The final four games on Nebraska’s 2021 schedule include Ohio State, Wisconsin (in Madison) and Iowa. Just sayin’. 

In other words, Frost has to protect his gem the best he can with the long haul in mind. Yes, Martinez is a gem. His penchant for turnovers is a problem, no question. But even Martinez’s detractors will acknowledge the Huskers could be sunk without him behind center this coming season. So, again, Frost can offer protection by leaning hard on the running backs. But are they up to it? 

During Wednesday’s practice — 30 minutes of which were open to media — Nebraska had only two scholarship running backs suited up (freshmen Marvin Scott and Gabe Ervin). A couple of scholarship running backs weren’t on the scene. Redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson watched in street clothes, as did USC transfer Markese Stepp.

The 6-foot, 235-pound Stepp made it through only a few spring practices. His undisclosed injury, which will keep him out until this summer, is a situation to watch very closely. It took some steam out of spring ball. After all, he had 13 runs of 10 yards or longer at USC, while the five other scholarship backs on NU’s roster have a combined one run of 10 yards or longer.

Stepp has 100 career carries for 505 yards and six touchdowns along with four catches for 35 yards. Frost needs him in fine form come fall, for obvious reasons — perhaps the main reason being the guy who wears jersey No. 2. 

Defensive coordinators are well-aware.

* Martinez seemed extremely comfortable last week at Memorial Stadium in a setting in which several reporters fired questions at him in rapid-fire succession. He looked each questioner in the eye and gave honest answers. He doesn’t allow himself to be led into any responses. He’s poised and thinks quickly on his feet. It’s strikingly impressive to watch.

In discussing reasons for his fumble issues, Martinez said, “Sometimes I’m really just doing too much. The effort’s there as far as trying to gain yards or trying to get the first down, whatever it is. Guys are punching at the ball, and I’m too loose with it. I have to clean that up. I wouldn’t say it’s a specific situation outside of that.”

Martinez could return to Nebraska in 2022 for a fifth year.

“It’s definitely open,” he said. “You never know. I want to play as best as I can this season and focus on what’s right ahead of me.” 

He chuckled.

“As crazy as things have been, there’s no reason why I should be looking two years ahead in the future,” he said. “I just really have to focus on the now and being the best I can possibly be, and the rest will work out.”

* So, Central Florida is putting players’ Twitter handles on the backs of football jerseys, and most fans seem fine with it.

With where college sports are trending, I’m not sure I want to be running with the pack on many topics. But, hey, if 55-year-old UCF coach Gus Malzahn can have a sense of humor about this one, so can this 54-year-old. Yes, I’m 54, not 74.

“This is the new age of personal branding,” Malzahn told reporters. “We’re embracing it within the NCAA rules. That’s who we are and that’s who we’re going to be. You look at 322,000 living alumni and the average age is 36, 72,000 (students) and they’re all on Twitter. Some of these big schools, the average age of their alumni is 65 and they’re all on Facebook. We’ve got a big advantage there, OK. My mom’s on Facebook, you know, she checked it last night, matter of fact.” 

Just roll with it. I guess.

* A gigantic high-five to Nebraska’s bowling team. That’s a proud program. Congrats to head coach Paul Klempa, a native of Johnstown, New York, who no doubt picked up a lot from long-time Husker head coach Bill Straub. Bill’s no doubt beaming.