McKewon: Patience may make perfect for Husker QB Taylor Martinez

Martinez excels at patience in the zone read. Though Nebraska ran a no-huddle offense last year, Martinez often worked the play clock under 5 seconds, getting the Huskers into a good play with the last move of the chess piece. But on passing downs — obvious ones and not-quite-so — he'll be asked to take the step the offense eventually must to achieve the balance Beck's looking for, the balance that will land more top receivers.


LINCOLN — Patience.

It's the one area in which quarterback Taylor Martinez can grow as he enters his senior season.

Not his teammates' or coaches' trust in him. Martinez has command of that offense and that huddle. It took time — it took every Husker quarterback not named Tommie Frazier some time — but he's there. He may have as much autonomy in Tim Beck's offense as any Big Ten quarterback does in his.

It's Martinez, rather, who can wait that extra beat to let passing plays develop. Trusting the protection to be better than it was last season. Trusting the escape hatch of a throwaway. Living with a punt.

Martinez excels at patience in the zone read. Though Nebraska ran a no-huddle offense last year, Martinez often worked the play clock under 5 seconds, getting the Huskers into a good play with the last move of the chess piece.

But on passing downs — obvious ones and not-quite-so — he'll be asked to take the step the offense eventually must to achieve the balance Beck's looking for, the balance that will land more top receivers.

In Beckspeak, it's called “letting the offense work.” When NU got off schedule last year during a series, Martinez would try to bite off more than he — any quarterback — could chew. Thursday, Martinez offered an oft-repeated explanation for most of his miscues.

“A lot of the turnovers (last year) were when we were down by a lot of points,” Martinez said. “We just gotta try to make plays, and that's the only way you could come back, trying to make plays and make things happen. That's when a lot of the turnovers and interceptions came in.”

In reality, seven of Martinez's 27 career interceptions occurred when the Huskers were losing by eight points or more. Two of those seven came when NU trailed by 15 points or more: Late in last year's Ohio State loss and early in the third quarter of the blowout loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.

On both interceptions, Martinez tried to make a play when the Huskers absolutely needed one. On both, the protection wasn't great. Late in a 45-31 loss to Georgia, Martinez underthrew an open Jamal Turner on a deep ball, but he only did so because Rex Burkhead missed a pass block. And Martinez likely completes the pass if Kenny Bell doesn't run his route so closely to Turner.

But more of Martinez's mistakes — or near-mistakes — came out of declining the check-down for a more substantial gain, or bailing on the protection to scramble and, thereby, shorten the range of easy throws.

The quarterback couldn't ask for a better early-season slate in which to hone his passing patience. Among the first six opponents, only UCLA's defense has the talent to cause NU's offense much heartburn. Last year, the Huskers had the Bruins, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the opening six games. The ride's smoother in 2013.

And as long as running back Ameer Abdullah stays healthy, Martinez has the dependable checkdown option he lost when Burkhead got hurt last year. Further, Turner — who often runs the short slants on third-and-medium, bloomed in the second half of last year. Those two additions — and Martinez's confidence in them — are two stones in the water Martinez might not have been sure of at the start of 2012.

Martinez is accelerating, I suspect, toward a big final year. Too many pieces are in place for it not to occur. But those finer points, that seniors usually locate and perfect, are the remaining challenges on the quarterback menu.

On with the Rewind, which remains a Prewind for this week and next.

Five must-stay-healthy players (not named Taylor Martinez)

» Guard Spencer Long: First, he's very good. Second, his absence for even a game would be like center Jacob Hickman's occasional absence in 2009. It would throw off the unit's equilibrium.

» Bell: He plays wideout unafraid, which increases the likelihood that he's bound to miss some time. But his straight-line speed is vital to keeping pass defenses honest on the deep throw, which opens up the middle of the field for tight ends and slot Turner.

» Linebacker David Santos: Whatever role Santos inhabits this year — starting middle linebacker looks like it — he's a rangy run-stopper who can make flashy plays to create turnovers. And linebacker depth — with Trevor Roach's injury and Thomas Brown's departure — isn't quite what it was coming out of spring.

» Nickel Ciante Evans: The well-liked captain plays a most crucial spot in Bo Pelini's defense, and he'll draw the few top receivers NU faces this season. Evans is a must-keep.

» Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste: He may not even be NU's best outside corner. But he is the one who can body up a team's big opposing receiver downfield or in the red zone. Jean-Baptiste has generally been pretty good at it, too.

Five walk-ons to watch

» Tight end Jared Blum: The Gretna native appears in the mix for playing time, perhaps as a blocking specialist. Trey Foster is another.

» Running back King Frazier: There's a role for him, perhaps on special teams, perhaps on offense. Freshmen Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby aren't likely to redshirt, but Frazier could be one of NU's better options on a short-yardage play.

» Defensive tackle Brodrick Nickens: Not likely to be a walk-on much longer, the senior from Alliance will have some role on the line. How large it is may depend on the progress of Vincent Valentine and several freshmen.

» Punter Sam Foltz: The starter for several years to come, if reports from practice are accurate. What creates all these talented in-state specialists? The wind. And perhaps boredom. It's inherently fun to boot the bejesus out of a football, even if it slides 18 yards sideways. Some do it better than others.

» Wide receiver Brandon Reilly: Has some Todd Peterson qualities to his physique, and probably better speed. Peterson had excellent hands, though. And Reilly has more competition for playing time.

Four nonconference players to watch

» Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron: Quarterback Brett Smith is the Cowboys' best player, but the 5-foot-10, 187-pound Herron — who caught a touchdown against Nebraska in 2011 — is the team's most dangerous weapon. He averaged 21 yards per catch last year and can also run jet sweeps in a pinch.

» Southern Miss defensive tackle Khyri Thornton: The Huskers wouldn't mind having the 6-3, 308-pounder on their defense. Thornton, likely a 2014 NFL draft pick, gives the Golden Eagles good interior push on a decent front seven.

» UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr: Arguably the nation's best hybrid end-linebacker, Barr's skill set is similar to that of Georgia's Jarvis Jones. And he can knock down Martinez's quick throws, too.

» South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner: Ran for 2,044 yards last year — tops in the FCS and FBS. At 6-0, 215 pounds, Zenner was still quick enough to bust off a 99-yard touchdown run against Kansas.

Three stats

» 38: Number of Imani Cross' carries last season that came with the Huskers winning by 15 points or more. Cross didn't see much action in crunch time last year. That will change in 2013.

» 41: Number of catches by running backs last year. Look for that number to go north of 60. More Abdullah, more fullbacks, more Newby, and fewer to the tight ends, who combined to catch 48 last year.

» 21.62: Yards per kickoff return for the Huskers last year, the lowest average under Pelini. Punt return stats have been similarly anemic in 2011 and 2012 — less than 10 yards both seasons.

Opponent watch

» Michigan's No. 1 running back recruit, Derrick Green, came to camp weighing 240 pounds. He's sat out the last couple workouts with what coach Brady Hoke told reporters Thursday was a “boo-boo.”

» Penn State coach Bill O'Brien told reporters after three practices that junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson has a small edge on true freshman Christian Hackenberg at quarterback.

» Iowa's made no progress in deciding which of its three quarterbacks is going to be the starter. The Hawkeyes have an open scrimmage-practice Aug. 17. Maybe that'll decide it. I'll take the junior college kid, Cody Sokol, in the long run.

Next week

Coaches put the brakes on any talk of surprising newcomers.

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