From limiting turnovers to self-motivation, Adrian Martinez is focused on an offseason of growth

Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez looks to connect with a receiver against Rutgers on Dec. 18 in Piscataway, New Jersey. In last season’s final four games, Martinez completed 67.6% of his passes for 195.5 yards per game.

Mario Verduzco has a short and sweet to-do list for Nebraska junior quarterback Adrian Martinez.

Actually, it’s more of a don’t-do list.

“No more frickin’ turnovers. That’s it,” the Husker quarterbacks coach said Monday following the program’s fourth practice of the spring. “He’s just got to take care of the damn football. Seriously.”

Verduzco, like coach Scott Frost last week, pointed to last year’s finale against Rutgers as evidence of what Martinez can be and what has kept him from consistently being it.

Against the Scarlet Knights, Martinez completed 24 of 28 passes for 255 yards, rushed for 157 more and tallied three total touchdowns. “Conference player of the year” material, Frost called it.

But Martinez also turned the ball over four times. That was a big part of the reason NU eked out a hard-fought 28-21 win despite outgaining Rutgers 620-252. 

“Probably the worst game and the best game I’ve ever seen,” Verduzco surmised Monday. “If he can eliminate the turnovers and take care of the football — and if he truly cares about his teammates like I know he does, evidenced by his behavior at the Penn State game — if he cares about his guys like I know he does, then take care of the ball.

“Those guys on defense don’t want to see turnovers, I don’t want to see turnovers. Coach Frost absolutely does not want to see turnovers.”

Martinez, the Fresno, California, native and 27-game starter at NU, said he is on the path to cutting down the frequency of giveaways, particularly fumbles. He improved from 12 (six lost) to 10 (five lost) from 2018 to 2019 and was looking at another improvement in 2020 before fumbling three times and losing two against Rutgers to bump his season totals to seven and five, respectively.

“Part of it is film, part of it is better decision-making and it has to be an effort on my part, but really it’s ball security,” Martinez said. “I feel good about the interception piece to an extent. I obviously need to clean those up. But ball security. I really hurt my team when I fumble the ball. That hurts the defense, obviously the offensive side of the ball and the turnover margin, we need to limit.

“So effort in practice, film room when it comes to decision-making and continuing to put a concentrated effort and focus on those things.”

The Nebraska offensive brain trust believes ardently that, if that metric improves, Martinez can be among the league’s most dangerous quarterbacks. It’s not the only thing to work on — Martinez talked about working on pushing the ball down the field more, developing better rapport with his receivers and his efforts to drop a couple of pounds from the end of last season to fully unlock “that first couple of steps burst” in the run game — but it’s a nice, focused approach.

Martinez sounded refreshed and recharged while talking about it, just as he did in labeling 2021 a “prove it” year during a behind-the-scenes video published by the program over the weekend.

Certainly, it has been a bumpy ride for Martinez and the team he’s captained twice. In addition to trying to bounce back from shoulder surgery and lead the team through all of the COVID-19 interruptions in 2020, Martinez lost his job to Luke McCaffrey during the season, only to get it back after two games.

“It was adversity, something to battle through and something to persevere through,” he said. “I didn’t give up and I continued to be a leader, and I think more than anything it showed in myself that I could still have an impact on the field and during practice without being the starting quarterback.”

Even so, it took a toll. It’s not easy to be told that you’re getting benched, nor is it easy delivering the message. Verduzco, who wasn’t made available to reporters over the second half of the 2020 regular season, got emotional talking about that stretch of games.

“We all have children — or some of you have pets or dogs — and you love them to death, man. So, he’s like a son,” Verduzco said. “Sometimes those things are difficult — to tell them the truth about themselves, you know what I’m saying? It’s not easy, but it needs to be done. Part of the, if you will, the four domains of learning, that affective domain sometimes can be the most difficult of things, just in terms of the communication and the things that you are required to say.

“But, he and I have a tremendous relationship and those lines of communication were wide-ass open when we recruited him, when he came here, and they’re still wide open.”

So, Martinez looks at this as an offseason of growth in the micro and the macro. Hang on to the ball, but also take those experiences and that adversity and channel it.

That will be paramount, especially considering there’s a wide gap currently between him and the two freshmen behind him, neither of whom have taken a collegiate snap. There’s no obvious contender to truly push him for the job now that McCaffrey transferred to Louisville. In 2019, Martinez had a clear path to the starting job and didn’t play as well as he wanted to or NU needed him to.

“I just very rarely have been around quarterbacks that aren’t self-motivated to do as best as they can regardless of who’s behind them,” Verduzco said. “I would have never in a million years anticipated that Adrian maybe needed that. I just would not have. But here we are now. Don’t allow that same sort of thing to take place a second time around.

“Go out and make certain you’re focused on competing against yourself and you’re getting better every day based on your own personal performance and not anybody else.”

Martinez sounded confident Monday that he will not lack for motivation in the coming months.

“When you go through losing your job and getting it back, I think that mentality is something I have to stick with and something that I won’t let (slip),” Martinez said. “Those guys are talented; Heinrich, Matt Masker, Logan Smothers. They’re doing a really good job.

“I won’t let up and I know they won’t, either. It’s always a competition and that’s something that Coach Frost and Verduzco preach consistently.”