What makes a great college quarterback? And does Nebraska currently have one in Taylor Martinez?
There's a piece missing. And of course, Martinez can't add that final ingredient by himself.
There's a plausible argument that claims Martinez has already achieved greatness. Just look at his numbers – and highlight reel plays – and magazine covers. But this year he has one last chance to do something much more important – deliver a championship.
The key will be a little less explosion, a little more stability.
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The fourth-year quarterback is one of the most recognizable figures in college football, partly for his longevity (he stands a good chance of starting 50 games at Nebraska), partly for his blazing speed and partly for his unorthodox throwing motion. Like Tim Tebow before him, Martinez gets a lot of national disdain for his passing, but he showed a lot of improvement last season. If he completes 60 to 65 percent of his passes again this year, a lot of that disdain will fade.
Like Tebow, Martinez has proven to be a polarizing figure, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So was Scott Frost, but Frost made all his critics eat their words with an undefeated senior season, a conference title and a national championship. Martinez has a decent shot at a conference crown this fall if he cuts his turnovers in half and Bo Pelini can coach up some young talent on defense.
If the Huskers win the Big Ten Championship, Martinez gets an immediate promotion into the pantheon of great Husker quarterbacks, right up there with Tommie Frazier, Turner Gill, Jerry Tagge, Eric Crouch and Frost.
Are championships the only measure of greatness for a college quarterback? No, but they’re the most important because they demand leadership, consistency and competitive greatness.
And we must hold T-Mart’s main rival, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, to the same standard. Is Miller a great college quarterback? Not yet. He delivered an undefeated regular season, but he has to win a conference title game. As Martinez already knows, that’s easier said than done.
For now, Martinez has great stats and magazine covers, and maybe a little more. If you take away Ndamukong Suh's two magnificently dominant years, Martinez is the unquestioned face of the Bo Pelini era thus far. In fact, he may be the face of the Pelini era even if Suh is included, since quarterbacks tend to outrank defensive tackles for such honors. Martinez is a statistical wonder, a high risk/high reward quarterback who makes big plays.
And yes, there’s the downside: Martinez produces turnovers with alarming frequency. He is the perfect symbol of the Pelini era – there’s consistency on the surface (five consecutive nine-win seasons) but when you look deeper, you see the lack of discipline on the field which causes the maddening penalties and turnovers that keep Pelini’s teams from becoming Top 10 contenders. Even after starting 30-plus games, Martinez sometimes tries to do too much and shows poor judgment.
Going into his senior season, Martinez is already the Nebraska career leader in total offense (9,449 yards), career passing yards (6,591), completions (506) and touchdown passes (46). He will always hold a prominent piece of real estate in the land of Husker history for those things alone.
By the time he wraps up his explosive Nebraska career, he may well join Colin Kaepernick as the only major college football players ever to throw for 9,000 career yards and rush for 3,000 career yards.
He's got all the measurable you could want, but he lacks the intangibles. He needs to steady up and lead his team. If Martinez can avoid crises, the rest of the offense will follow suit.
Martinez has ripped off five runs of 70 or more yards during his career. If you measure a quarterback by his ESPN highlights, Martinez is every bit the equal of Frazier, maybe better. But that's not how I measure quarterbacks. His career thus far is pretty much the converse of guys like James Street of the 1969 Texas Longhorns, Craig Krenzel of the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes or 2011 Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, all of whom lacked sizzle and eye-popping statistics but won championships, largely because those teams all played tough defense.
Those three quarterbacks avoided turnovers, and they played in the shadow of brighter stars who shared the backfield with them. This fall, there is no bigger star than Martinez in the Husker backfield. But he won’t take the Huskers to the title unless the No. 2 story line involves a bunch of young Blackshirts growing up in a hurry, working hand in hand with Martinez to give a radical makeover to Nebraska’s turnover margin.
Pelini may have a few more years to elevate the Huskers from college football’s second level to its top tier. But Martinez is down to his last chance.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com