LINCOLN — Bo Pelini's getting smooth at these starting quarterback updates.
“Still to be determined,” Nebraska's coach said when asked whether Taylor Martinez — who 10 days ago missed his first game since 2010 with a turf toe injury — would be ready for Saturday's Big Ten opener against Illinois. As of Sunday, Pelini said, Martinez “wasn't quite 100 percent” and still hadn't fully practiced since a 41-21 loss to UCLA on Sept. 14.
Martinez has thrown some and done “some individual things,” Pelini said. NU now takes Mondays off and practices in pads Tuesday. Pelini stuck to his assertion that if Martinez isn't in top shape, the Huskers will play redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg III or both against the Illini.
“Taylor wants to play, but at the same time, I deal with the doctors and the trainers and you know, Taylor knows: We're not putting him out there until I know he's going to feel 100 percent and can execute our offense at 100 percent,” Pelini said.
And for Martinez, “100 percent” means him running the ball.
“I know you can throw when your foot's bothering you, but you've got to be able to put your foot in the ground and go,” Pelini said. “That's a big part of our offense. Until he shows he's ready and willing and able to do that, that's when you'll see him.”
Martinez is scheduled to speak after practice Tuesday. Armstrong and Kellogg — who combined for 350 total yards and two touchdown passes in a 59-20 win over South Dakota State — will this week compete to see who'd start, if necessary, in Martinez's absence. Armstrong got the nod against SDSU, and Pelini said he still has the edge headed into practice this week.
Though the opponent had plenty to do with it — the Jackrabbits are 99th in total defense in the FCS — Nebraska still gained the most yards (645) of Pelini's tenure, rushing and passing for 300 yards for the first time in school history.
“I feel even better now than I did before — and that was pretty good,” Pelini said.
Husker offensive teammates said they raised their game to help break in two quarterbacks who had little playing time.
“If Taylor can't go — if we have to go with Tommy or Ron — there's definitely some added pressure on us,” lineman Brent Qvale said. “Ron's an older guy with some experience and Tommy's a young guy with very little experience, so we might have to run the ball a little more than normal. And when we do call passes, we know we have to keep him clean so he doesn't get hit and rattled.”
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Said running back Ameer Abdullah: “Taylor brings a unique ability to the game. He's probably one of the most dynamic runners in the country at the quarterback position. Filling that void is definitely something where we look to raise our ability.”
Abdullah was in Armstrong and Kellogg's spot last year, when senior Rex Burkhead missed seven games with two aggravations of the same knee injury. Abdullah ran for at least 100 yards in six of those seven games.
“Rex going down was huge in a lot of people's eyes but, for me, for the most part, I thought I was ready because I had prepared well,” said Abdullah, NU's No. 1 running back this year. He's offered occasional encouragement to Armstrong and Kellogg, he said, including a reminder to “lean on me if you get flustered.”
Abdullah's also seen Martinez — who's missed just three starts since he won the job at the start of the 2010 season — working hard to return.
Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said he can see Martinez “hates” sitting out.
“I told him: 'You just gotta back up the team, back up the guys ahead of you that are playing right now, and when you come back, you come back stronger than you were before,' ” Enunwa said. “He's a huge competitor — so this isn't one of his best times — but he's working hard.”
One adjustment Nebraska's offense has made in recent years is to run multiple groups of offense in practice. The size of NU's scout team — bolstered by walk-ons who choose to serve on it — allows for two units to run simultaneously. That means more players get more practice reps. It also means the backup quarterbacks mix and match with top backs and receivers, creating chemistry that other teams' backups may not have.
That could be why Enunwa knows well that Kellogg throws the hardest of the three while Armstrong throws the farthest. It'd be why, too, Enunwa doesn't flinch much when it comes to which quarterback is throwing to him.
“If the ball's there, I'm going to catch it regardless of who's throwing it,” Enunwa said.
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Video: Nebraska's Monday press conference