Has anyone piled up more statistics and gotten less respect as a Nebraska football player than Taylor Martinez?
Martinez is a classic case study in how you define success and productivity for a major college quarterback. Does it mean yards and touchdowns? Does it mean championships?
He has not yet begun his junior season, but he’s already piled up 5,559 total yards – the third highest total in Cornhusker football history. Martinez already has more 2,000-yard seasons than Jerry Tagge, Vince Ferragamo, Turner Gill or Tommie Frazier (in fact, Frazier never had a 2,000-yard season).
Martinez has accounted for 44 touchdowns rushing and passing, which puts him comfortably in the Top 10 at Nebraska. If he gets 19 touchdowns passing and running this year, he’ll move past Steve Taylor into the No. 3 spot.
Nebraskans love titles even more than touchdowns. If the Cornhuskers are to finally break their 12-year conference title drought, Martinez will need to do more than pile up numbers this fall. He must avoid turnovers. He needs to become consistent as a leader and decision maker.
What has Martinez accomplished so far? If you make a steady diet of internet message boards, you’d think he’s been a complete bust. That’s far from the truth.
He became an overnight sensation when he piled up video game-type numbers in five of his first seven games and was mentioned by TV commentators – very prematurely – as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He became the first Husker freshman to surpass 400 passing yards in a game.
He has been erratic and turnover-prone. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that someone who starts as a freshman would make a lot of mistakes, but at Nebraska, when the coach says you’re the man, there are standards to live up to.
Martinez played in a Big 12 Championship game, although he was so beat-up it was questionable whether he should have been on the field at all. His performance was forgettable at best. He threw an end zone interception midway through the second quarter when he could have given Nebraska a commanding 24-7 edge. He also lost a fumble, took numerous sacks and was generally indecisive running the offense as the Sooners rallied to win, 23-20. It was the only time Martinez was at the helm when the Huskers lost a second-half lead.
Conversely, he has led Nebraska from behind in the second half just once – last October, when the Huskers put together a school-record effort by overcoming a 21-point deficit to beat Ohio State, 34-27.
Martinez has not produced any conference championships. Then again, those who have – names like Tagge, Gill, Frazier, Frost and Crouch – all had the benefit of great offensive lines. Martinez has not. His record in his 25 starts is 17-8. Regardless of offensive line performance, a quarterback who loses eight games in two years at Nebraska tends to become a target for criticism. Not surprisingly, Martinez gets his share and then some.
Some of his detractors say he should be a defensive back. Sound familiar, Scott Frost and Jammal Lord?
Frost was unpopular with Husker fans in 1996 and even early in 1997, much as Martinez is now. He was called a traitor to his state – and worse – for signing a letter of intent with Stanford and playing on the West Coast before transferring to Nebraska.
Martinez had a brilliant start as a freshman when he ran the football with abandon, although it was mostly straight ahead on read option plays.
Then came his devastating high-ankle sprain just before halftime on Oct. 30, 2010, against Missouri, an injury he aggravated three weeks later at Texas A&M and, judging by the results on the field, has not yet made a full recovery.
Bo Pelini started Martinez his first game as a redshirt freshman because he could make big plays, but the big plays were few and far between last season. Although coaches a year ago that he was full speed, Martinez seemed to have lost his burst. He had only one run of 20 yards or more in the last 10 games of the season, and he had only two pass completions of 30 yards or more over the last six games.
The lack of explosiveness may not completely due to his injured ankle. Pelini and Tim Beck seemed to have Martinez on a short leash, possibly fearing injury because they didn’t trust Brion Carnes as a backup. The best scenario for Nebraska in fall camp is that Carnes earns more trust, so the coaching staff will allow Martinez to run with abandon once again, keeping the hook slides to a minimum. Martinez seemed hesitant running the ball last year, and sometimes put himself at risk by half-running, half-sliding.
In the Ohio State game, Martinez was on display with all his good and bad qualities magnified. I still can’t understand how he avoided a broken sternum when Buckeye safety Christian Bryant nailed him in one of those awkward should-I-run-or-should-I-slide moments.
He threw a devastating interception just before halftime that allowed OSU to stretch its lead to 20-6.
In the second half, he was at his best, breaking a read option for a touchdown, hitting Quincy Enunwa in stride for a 36-yard touchdown. Midway through the fourth quarter, he had what might have been the best moment of his career thus far, when under a rush at the Ohio State 30, he extended the play, kept his composure, looked around and found Rex Burkhead open in the flat. Burkhead turned it into the game-tying touchdown.
That play represents a victory over the dragon Martinez has most struggled with during his short career. The better he gets at keeping plays alive with his feet and killing opponents with his arm, the better off the Huskers will be. And of course, a return of his flying feet would be welcome, including a few strategic long-distance lightning-bolt touchdowns like those which marked the first half of his freshman year.
Martinez is not a classic dropback quarterback and never will be one, although everyone in Husker Nation hopes his much-ballyhooed training sessions will improve his footwork and passing form. That in itself is not a problem at Nebraska, where many have excelled despite lacking an NFL-caliber passing arm.
At this point, it’s up to Martinez – the latest in a long line of Husker option-style quarterbacks – to forge his own legacy. Will he be remembered like Lord, a great athlete who battled hard at quarterback but couldn’t overcome his limitations and inconsistency? Or will he be remembered like Frost, who developed excellent leadership skills and overcame the acrimony of Husker fans – and his unorthodox passing style – to lead Nebraska to a conference title and a national championship?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org