Nebraska counting on sharper Adrian Martinez in ‘prove it’ season

Bryon Houlgrave/The Register
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Adrian Martinez will be a rare four-year starting quarterback at Nebraska this fall and yet, for all his experience, he is one of the team’s biggest mysteries.

He was among the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country as a freshman in 2018 and appeared on Heisman Trophy candidate lists the next spring.

But a sophomore slump set in amid injuries, he seemed to lose a step and committed 13 turnovers in 10 games. It didn’t get better in last year’s pandemic-shortened season. He continued to struggle hanging onto the ball, and he lost the starter’s job for two games as the Cornhuskers went 3-5.

Martinez faced no serious competition this spring following Luke McCaffrey‘s transfer, so how the senior from Fresno, California, plays this fall will largely determine whether the Huskers can win more than five games for the first time in coach Scott Frost‘s four seasons.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs for sure over my career here and I just want to leave it all out there – and not just for me,” Martinez said. “I think it’s a prove-it year for us, as a team. There’s a lot we’re capable of. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. You have to work for it, prove it to each other and prove it to this state and everybody else.”

The Huskers, who play their spring game Saturday, have made their biggest upgrades at receiver even though 2020 leader Wan'Dale Robinson transferred.

Samori Toure, an FCS All-American at Montana in 2019, joined the team as a graduate transfer, and Omar Manning, the top junior college receiver two years ago, is having an impressive spring after sitting out most of last season with an injury.

Toure and Manning give the Huskers a chance to stretch the field, something they struggled to do under Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick last year.

“I feel confident in what Frost and Lubick are doing to mix it up and give us more opportunities,” Martinez said.

Beyond delivering the ball to his receivers, quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said, there’s one point of emphasis for Martinez.

“No more fricking turnovers. That’s it,” Verduzco said. “You have to take care of the damn ball, seriously.”

Martinez, who started six games and played one series in a seventh, lost five of seven fumbles and threw three interceptions.

Two of the fumbles were costly. In a 26-20 loss at Iowa, the Huskers trailed by six and had the ball at the Iowa 39 in the final 90 seconds when Martinez had the ball come loose while getting sacked. In a 24-17 home loss to Minnesota, the Huskers were down by three points late in the third quarter when Martinez fumbled at the Nebraska 40.

Martinez’s worst turnover game was the finale at Rutgers. He fumbled on two of the first three possessions and threw interceptions in the second and third quarters – and the Huskers won 28-21.

Martinez has thrown 14 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions the last two seasons. He’s confident he can cut down on the interceptions with better decision-making.

As for the fumbles, he said he’s had a bad habit of trying to make a play that isn’t there, and that has left him vulnerable.

“The effort’s there as far as trying to gain yards and get the first down, whatever it is,” he said, “but guys are punching at the ball and I’m too loose with it. I have to clean that up.”

McCaffrey pushed Martinez hard last spring and in preseason practices before Frost elected to go with the incumbent. The job opened again following season-opening losses to Ohio State and Northwestern.

McCaffrey started and won against Penn State, but one of the lasting images from that game was a video of Martinez’s impassioned locker room talk where he spoke of the importance of the team’s success over his own.

“I didn’t give up and I continued to be a leader and I think more than anything it showed to myself I could still have an impact on the field during practice without being the starting quarterback,” he said.

It was the first time a healthy Martinez didn’t start a game for the Huskers. He also was on the bench for all except the last possession against Illinois the next week. He regained the job for the last four games.

“I never would have in a million years anticipated Adrian maybe needed that,” Verduzco said of the benching. “Here we are now. Don’t allow that same sort of thing to take place a second time around.”

Message received, Martinez said. He said he’s lost a little weight, feels faster and has concentrated on strengthening his arm. He said he never has been more motivated.

“You go through losing your job, getting it back,” he said, “I think that mentality is something I have to stick with and something I won’t neglect.”

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.