Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Huskers' Taylor Martinez strikes a balance
By Adam Rittenberg
LINCOLN, Neb. -- After the way Taylor Martinez introduced himself to the college football world in 2010, footwork would seem like the last thing he'd need to significantly upgrade.
The Nebraska quarterback has little trouble moving forward or sideways, consistently wrong-footing defenders or simply outrunning them with his superb speed. Some signal-callers might offer their non-throwing arms to replicate what T-Magic does in the open field.
It's moving backward, however, when Martinez gets into trouble. Most people cite an awkward, shot-put-like throwing motion as his biggest problem, but his mechanical issues begin with his first step toward the pocket.
So while many of his teammates spent spring break doing the things normal college students do, Martinez returned to his native California and worked with noted quarterbacks guru Steve Calhoun. Their sole mission: footwork.
Taylor Martinez hopes improved footwork will make him a better passer.
"At first, if I took the left foot back, my body would lean back," Martinez told ESPN.com. "That's what caused me to maybe throw an awkward way. Now if I take my right foot back, my shoulders are more even, the way they're supposed to be.
"I feel a lot different. A lot more balanced."
Martinez might finally be striking a balance at Nebraska after two seasons of extremes.
He burst onto the national radar as a redshirt freshman in 2010 before toe and ankle injuries slowed his progress and production. Six weeks after a national coming-out party at Kansas State, Martinez endured a night at Texas A&M that he, coach Bo Pelini and all who love Nebraska football would just as soon forget.
He rode the roller coaster again in 2011, bouncing back from a three-interception disaster at Wisconsin to lead the biggest comeback in team history two weeks later against Ohio State. He had a solid stretch midway through the season but backslid against Michigan and in the Capital One Bowl. Martinez completed just 56.3 percent of his passes for the season, tossing 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
No player triggers more debate in this football-obsessed state than Martinez, whose play on the field and words off it, no matter how few of them, are constantly scrutinized. He once went months without talking to reporters, during which his father shot down transfer talk, and although he's gradually warming up to the spotlight, he remains guarded. In a bizarre news conference after the win over Ohio State, Pelini came to his defense, lashing out at a columnist who had criticized the quarterback. Although it has been a quiet spring for Martinez, he made waves by saying anything shy of a national championship would be a disappointment for Nebraska in 2012.
Martinez, by the way, is only halfway through his Huskers career.
"It seems like he's been around five years," Pelini said. "He's still a young guy. He's still got two years left, so he's got a lot of football left to play."
A lot of potentially great football, according to Pelini. Beginning this season.
"He's a better football player," Pelini said. "He's a lot more comfortable. His technique's better, his fundamentals are better. And if that continues, he has a chance to really make big strides. "
After the bowl game, offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Martinez identified five or six areas Martinez needed to improve during the offseason. Footwork topped the list, and on advice of his father, Casey, Martinez went to Calhoun's Armed & Dangerous camp last month.
They worked on dropping back with his right foot rather than his left and squaring his shoulders on throws. Martinez compared Calhoun's tips with what he heard from Nebraska’s coaches, and was relieved to see they were "on the same path."
"There were some things techniquewise we identified and tried to fix," Beck said. "It's like a golf swing. You open your stance or loosen your grip, whatever, to offset your deficiency. This year, we've had the opportunity through spring to fix it. Footwork was one of the biggest issues with him."
It's not the only reason to believe Martinez will be improved this season. For the first time in his college or high school career, he will play in the same offense in back-to-back seasons.
Martinez attended three high schools, playing primarily quarterback at the final two. After playing under coordinator Shawn Watson at Nebraska in 2010, he had to absorb Beck's system last season, which also marked Nebraska's first in the Big Ten.
"That's going to be a big advantage for him," Pelini said. "He's been so caught up in what to do, but he hasn't necessarily been able to address some of the fine points that are going to make him a better football player -- the how and the why."
Martinez has seen a "huge difference" since the bowl game, whether it's reading blitzes, checking out of certain plays and into better ones or knowing where his weapons will be in an offense that gives route-runners additional flexibility. It doesn't hurt that Nebraska returns eight starters on offense, including seven of its top eight pass-catchers from 2011.
"You can just tell," running back Rex Burkhead said. "When he drops back to pass, he's not really missing that many reads. He's not looking around or rethinking a play. He knows exactly what to do before the play even starts."
Nebraska has had a top-15 rushing attack in each of the past two seasons and looks very strong in the backfield with Burkhead leading the way. Martinez, who had more rush yards as a freshman (965) than a sophomore (874), also could see an increased role as a ball carrier.
Beck admittedly took a cautious approach with Martinez last season, but he has more confidence in backup Brion Carnes. And while Martinez didn't miss any time in 2011, he said he hasn't felt this healthy since the 2010 game against Missouri, when he first injured his ankle.
"I think they'll be running me a little bit more this year," he said. "I'm really excited for that."
Although Martinez might be on the move more, Nebraska won't be going back to its 2010 offense.
Beck wants to push the pass more with a seemingly more confident Martinez and a more mature crop of receivers. Nebraska has finished 104th, 113th and 101st nationally in passing the past three seasons.
"We still believe in running the football to control the game," Beck said, "but I still think to win them, you've got to be able to throw it. So we've put more emphasis there."
Huskers coaches and players also have seen growth in Martinez as a leader. Pelini said being Nebraska's starting quarterback is impossible to prepare for until you've lived it. And for the past two years, through the ups and downs, Martinez has lived the life.
Martinez still has to win over a large portion of Huskers fans, but those inside the Osborne Athletic Complex have found reasons to believe.
"A lot of people agree, a lot of people disagree with the things he does or he says, but Taylor has always been good at blocking all the distractions out, whether it be good or bad," tight end Ben Cotton said. "He's obviously a quiet guy; people can see that. But he's done a great job of being a more positive vocal leader, not only for this offense but for this entire team.
"To see where he has come from, he's definitely grown up quite a bit."
A more balanced Martinez, in mind and in body, could help Nebraska take the next step in 2012.