Making the grade as a Nebraska QB
LINCOLN, Neb. -- You don't know Taylor Martinez.
You think you know the fourth-year Nebraska starting quarterback, with a first step faster than a flash bulb and throwing mechanics, while much improved, that still fall short of conventional.
You think you know Martinez, who turns 23 on Sunday, one day after No. 16 UCLA visits Memorial Stadium to face the 23rd-ranked Huskers. Saturday will mark his 42nd collegiate start, one of 37 school records (by Nebraska's count) that he's established since 2010.
Martinez needs 28 rushing yards to join four quarterbacks in FBS history who gained 3,000 on the ground and threw for 6,500. He needs 112 yards of total offense to become the ninth Big Ten player to accumulate 10,000. He's the active leader nationally in career rushing yardage and, historically, is among the likes of Vince Young and Colin Kaepernick with his statistical exploits.
He's led Nebraska to at least nine wins in each of his first three years. But the Huskers have lost four games every season with Martinez in charge. He is an enigma -- a cross between what Nebraska needs and the quarterback whom its fans cannot fully understand.
You know him as the California kid who's never appeared comfortable in the fishbowl that is Nebraska football. You've seen him talk awkwardly before the media, robotic with his short answers. Martinez can answer 20 questions in less than five minutes. Quiz him for a half-hour or half that time, and it's the same; the answers don't change.
"People mistake him for being rude," Nebraska offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. "But he just keeps a low profile. I think it helps him. He's not out there looking for attention."
If you really knew Taylor Martinez, this would make sense: At age 13, Martinez lived alone for three months in 2004 with his dad, Casey Martinez, in a tiny place near the dusty pit stop of Perris, Calif. Recently divorced, Casey was struggling financially. He started a real estate company. Taylor wanted to help, so he would cold call potential clients out of the phone book.
The kid got a few leads, his dad said -- none that the elder Martinez recalls closing, but Taylor was engaging on the phone. He asked the right questions and kept spirits afloat, helping motivate Casey to grow his business, regain custody of Taylor's two younger brothers and eventually remarry.
"He was my backbone during that period," Casey Martinez said.
Martinez used that same resolve to win the job at Nebraska 37 months ago over senior Zac Lee, the returning starter. The same determination helped Martinez keep his position through adversity and injuries and ridicule.
"When he sets his mind on something," Taylor's dad said, "he doesn't settle for anything less. Every time they say he can't do something, he finds a way to do it. I don't think he gets enough credit for that."
Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck saw the unbending attitude two years ago in what he describes as a turning point for Martinez. Wisconsin intercepted him three times in a 48-17 thumping of the Huskers. They returned home a week later and fell behind Ohio State by 21 points. Booed in his home stadium at halftime, Martinez brought Nebraska back to win.
"From then on," Beck said, "he slowly came out of his shell."
Truth is, Martinez never really shed that shell. Casey Martinez said his son developed it not as a result of the scrutiny he faced early in his career at Nebraska -- and it was intense -- but rather when his transfer from San Bernardino (Calif.) Cajon High School after his junior season to Corona Centennial prompted speculation that Martinez sought a better showcase for his athleticism.
The move, in fact, had nothing to do with football, Casey Martinez said.
Martinez struggled to find people he could trust. It's still that way. He keeps a tight inner circle. There's Casey, graduate assistant Joe Ganz, the former Nebraska QB who has closely mentored Martinez, and a handful of teammates.
Only a select few know Martinez.
And good luck getting through the shell. It allows Martinez to thrive in the fishbowl.
Just how brightly does the spotlight shine on Nebraska's quarterback?
Well, he's likely more recognizable than the governor. Only coach Bo Pelini, perhaps, draws more attention.
"I think I'm pretty used to it by now," Martinez said.
Martinez avoids crowds by eating at unpopular restaurants. Most of his time away from football is spent in the north Lincoln home he shares with a pair of teammates, including backup quarterback Ron Kellogg III. They play Xbox and pull pranks on each other.
Kellogg said he loves to razz Martinez.
"Taylor's so serious," Kellogg said, "that whenever you get a chance to talk to him and he starts making jokes, it's funny to me."
In public, Martinez gets mobbed by fans in search of autographs and photos. Sirles said he's seen it turn crazy at the mall.
"He's blessed. It's a great position to be in," the lineman said, before stopping to consider his words. "I'm glad it's not me."
When Tommie Frazier came to Lincoln as a quarterback out of Bradenton, Fla., in 1992, he said the Nebraska coaches told him to expect adoration and criticism, worship and rejection. You're like a son to the state, they told him. Frazier said he heard the warning but paid it little attention -- until he entered the fishbowl.
Frazier took over as the starter in the sixth game of his true freshman year in 1992. He played for three national titles, winning two.
Still, he said, he never embraced the environment.
"You tolerate it," Frazier said. "Every player who came to Nebraska understands what they got themselves into eventually. But do you embrace it? No, because you still have that private side of your life that you don't want everyone to know about.
"I didn't embrace it, but I also knew Nebraska football meant a lot to the fans."
Eric Crouch, Nebraska's starting quarterback from 1998 to 2001 and a former Heisman Trophy winner, says it helps to understand your surroundings. Crouch attended high school in Omaha. He studied predecessors like Frazier and Turner Gill.
"If you don't do that," Crouch said, "that's actually a pretty big mistake."
Martinez barely knew his teammates when he took over, let alone the history of his position. As a redshirt freshman three years ago, he started white hot, with 15 touchdowns in his first five games. Twice he scored on 80-yard runs. His 241-yard rushing performance against Kansas State set a Nebraska QB record.
But Martinez suffered an ankle injury that lingered through the season's second half. Nebraska lost a rematch with Washington in the Holiday Bowl. Down came heat on the quarterback.
"It's a tough situation, being the quarterback at Nebraska," Frazier said, "because all eyes are on you."
Days before the start of the spring semester in January 2011, Martinez released a statement to dispel talk that he planned to transfer.
It seems preposterous, in retrospect, to think he might have left. He threw for more than 1,600 yards that fall and rushed for nearly 1,000.
Such is life, though, in the fishbowl.
Life looks a lot calmer for Martinez today. Gone, apparently, is much of the erratic play that plagued portions of his career. He's calm in the pocket, completing 71 percent of his throws with six touchdowns and one interception in Nebraska's two victories.
Pelini named him one of four captains, the first time in six years the coach has bestowed that honor before the season.
Midway through a preseason practice last month, Martinez gathered the offensive unit. He was disappointed in its play.
This isn't us, he said, according to Sirles. This isn't who we want to be.
His teammates responded, and Martinez congratulated them at the end of the workout. Sirles said he could envision Martinez, as a freshman or sophomore, making a similar plea to the Huskers. Only difference, Sirles said, is they wouldn't have responded as favorably.
"Forget about the things you deal with on the field," Pelini said. "As the quarterback at Nebraska as a four-year starter, you deal with a lot of things off the field, a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations, a lot of criticism. That's not easy. I think he's persevered through it and stayed focused on making himself a better football player."
Gone, too, are many of the awkward moments in public. He's learned how to deal with media attention, if not how to provide interesting sound bites.
Asked if he's more comfortable now than at the beginning of this college journey, Martinez said no.
"I think I'm the exact same way," Martinez said.
Several teammates laughed at Martinez's answer. Taylor being Taylor, they said.
"I guarantee you if you ask anyone," Sirles said, "they'll say he's stepped up big time."
He guided Nebraska last year to four wins in which it trailed by 10 points or more in the second half.
"He has control of the offense," Kellogg said. "He knows where to put people. He knows where to get the ball. Basically, he knows how to win.
The growth of Martinez is something to behold, receiver Kenny Bell said.
Could he have done things better? Yes. Could have done things not as good? Yes. I'd say the same thing about me. But at the end of the day, he hasn't done anything to make the fans and the people of Nebraska disappointed.
--Former Nebraska QB Tommie Frazier
"I trust Taylor to make decisions," he said. "I trust Taylor's vision."
Young players revere him. After all, he's played more games than any quarterback at Nebraska.
"Even if somebody's doubting him, he goes out and does his thing," said freshman QB Tommy Armstrong, who made his collegiate debut last week. "I applaud him for that. He's teaching me a lot, just because nobody expected him to do what he's doing right now."
And they've noticed from the outside.
"Could he have done things better?" Frazier said. "Yes. Could have done things not as good? Yes. I'd say the same thing about me. But at the end of the day, he hasn't done anything to make the fans and the people of Nebraska disappointed."
In Saturday's 56-13 win over Southern Miss, Martinez's day was done early in the third quarter. When the game ended, he walked slowly toward the field's northwest exit alongside freshman receiver Kevin Gladney. They talked until Martinez spotted Kellogg, who completed four passes in reserve duty.
The quarterbacks embraced and continued toward the locker room. Martinez looked into the seats above, still jammed with people as he neared the corner of the end zone -- all eyes, as usual, on the fifth-year senior who plans after his football career to work in real estate with his father.
The quarterback raised his arms to the crowd, summoning it to roar approval.
Then he disappeared from view of the fans. They all knew him. For a moment, the shell was gone.
And inside the fishbowl, Taylor Martinez looked right at home.