Tom Osborne coached quarterbacks from Jerry Tagge to Turner Gill to Tommie Frazier to Scott Frost in his 34 years on Nebraska’s football staff, and he says current QB Adrian Martinez “probably has the best combination of skills of any quarterback I’ve seen at Nebraska.”
“You almost always see a guy who’s either really a good runner and probably an OK passer, or a guy who’s really a great passer and an OK runner. Or a guy that’s a little bit undersized,” the retired Husker coach and athletic director said Thursday morning at The World-Herald’s first Big Red Today Breakfast of the season. “Adrian has size. He’s got speed. He has elusiveness. And he’s a great pure passer.”
Osborne also likes what he’s seen of Martinez when the ball isn’t in his hands.
“He seems to have good leadership, good intelligence,” Osborne said. “So he seems to have the whole package.”
Osborne, as an assistant to Bob Devaney, designed the offense that Tagge and backup Van Brownson ran on Nebraska’s first two national championship teams in 1970 and 1971. Tagge went on to be a first-round NFL draft pick.
Osborne was head coach when Gill triggered the "Scoring Explosion” in the early 1980s, and when Frazier and Brook Berringer quarterbacked the championship teams of 1994 and 1995. Their successor, Scott Frost, delivered Osborne’s last national title in 1997 and now serves as head coach.
Frost was handicapped at times last season by a lack of depth at quarterback, particularly when Martinez was injured against Colorado and missed the Troy game.
As they enter this year’s opener Saturday against South Alabama, Osborne said the Huskers are “about as well off at quarterback as I’ve ever seen” with Martinez backed up by sophomore Noah Vedral and freshman Luke McCaffrey.
“You’ve got three guys there that are really talented,” he said. “He can go three-deep with some really good players. And probably can take a few more chances with the starting quarterback.”
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Osborne, who attends some practices as Frost’s guest, told the sellout crowd of 340 at Anthony’s Steakhouse that the Huskers have “improved greatly” in strength, speed and agility.
They have “a really good strength coach” in Zach Duval, he said, and Frost has “pretty well flipped the roster” in two offseasons.
He also had to flip the expectations. Osborne said a longtime football secretary was struck by how the mood after losses had changed in the football complex from Osborne’s days to the years of Frost’s predecessor, Mike Riley.
“When you’d lose a game, it was no big deal,” Osborne said. “And she remembered when losing a game was a really big deal. You couldn’t get a guy to smile, either a coach or a player, after you’d lost a ballgame. Under the previous staff, it was just another Monday. You can’t take that approach.”
Frost is “pushing the right buttons,” Osborne said, but a full rebuild takes time.
He said it will be enhanced by Frost’s re-emphasis on the walk-on program, which he called “the salvation” for his own program after scholarship cutbacks in the early 1970s.
When Frost was shuttling between Central Florida and Nebraska before assuming the NU job full time in January 2018, Osborne watched tape of 20 incoming walk-ons.
“I was really surprised,” he said, “because we had 20 guys that were really pretty good players coming here as walk-ons. This year they had another 20.”
Walk-ons usually need a few years to make an impact, Osborne said, but over time the impact is profound in two ways:
- Greater depth: Even if injuries strike the top two players at a position, “you’re probably not going to have a really bad football player,” he said. “You’re still going to have another guy go in there who’s going to have a fairly high degree of talent.”
- A better culture: “Almost by definition, these guys have an exceptional work ethic,” he said. “They’re overachievers, people who have a great attitude. They usually have pretty good character. That begins to permeate your whole squad.”