Taylor Martinez took the nation by storm last season, bursting onto the national radar as a redshirt freshman behind the wheel of a Nebraska Cornhuskers team with a BCS bowl on its mind. He was even considered a Heisman candidate for a short time, cracking my Heisman rankings in the 10-10-10 version of my 'College Football Saturday in 500 Words or Less' column that runs weekly during the season. The nation's love affair with the promising quarterback would eventually take a turn, however, as production fell off late in the season and the Huskers saw a promising season end in a Holiday Bowl loss to Washington.
A dual threat quarterback, in his first five games Martinez threw for over 100 yards and averaged 147.4 yards on the ground. In his seventh game, a win over Oklahoma State that ended the Cowboys' run at a perfect season, Martinez threw for 323 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 112 yards. Things were good in Lincoln.
Against Missouri one game later, running back Roy Helu, Jr. broke a Nebraska school record with 307 rushing yards. Martinez, however, did not play the second half after an injury left him with a bruised right thigh. He would not return to his early season form the rest of the way and missed two games due to injuries. Whereas he averaged 149.4 yards passing, 124.3 yards rushing and accounted for 20 touchdowns through the first seven games, he averaged 117 yards passing, 19 yards rushing and accounted for two touchdowns in his final five games. He finished the year with 1,631 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions through the air on 59.2% passing; and with 965 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 6.0 yards per attempt.
Not quite a polished passer, Martinez and the Husker offense struggled down the stretch as he was hobbled by leg injuries, no doubt the result of the punishment he took averaging 13.5 carries per game. Nebraska lost three of their last four games and came away with just six points in a loss to Texas A&M and seven points in the bowl game loss to Washington.
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Adding to the Huskers plight was a chewing out of Martinez by head coach Bo Pelini on the sideline of the Texas A&M game after Martinez went out with an ankle injury. Seeing a player chewed out by his coach is nothing unusual, but not long after, Martinez was rumored to have left the team; those rumors were refuted shortly after they emerged.
Nebraska is currently in the midst of spring practice with new offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who has reportedly worked to simplify the offense. One other interesting tidbit from the new OC, even if it isn't all that surprising, was that all of his quarterbacks have an equal shot at the starting gig as they prepare for next season. There's nothing groundbreaking about a coach telling the media that a position is up for grabs, but this could be more merely coach-speak.
He did acknowledge that Martinez and Cody Green have advantages in the quarterback race due to their experience. "Obviously, with Taylor and Cody being veterans and having played in games and been around a little bit more, they're further advanced because of that," Beck told the Omaha World Herald. "There's no question. And that gives them an edge up. After three days, that's probably where we're at."
Bottom line, Martinez and Green have a leg up because of their experience last season, but that won't guarantee them preferential treatment in the mind of their new offensive coordinator. It's not uncommon for coaching staffs to hem and haw about open position battles; in some cases, I believe those battles are legitimate, but a lot of coaches seem to use the depth chart to motivate their players or to send a message. For instance, Miami listed Spencer Whipple as the starting quarterback ahead of Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris based on pre-spring conditioning, a scenario that nobody believed would play out come game time. The most recent depth chart lists Harris the one, Morris the two and Whipple the three.
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There is no question that Martinez is extremely talented and I'm not saying he'll lose the starting job, but given the struggles near the end of the season and considering there's a new offensive coordinator at the helm (Beck was the running backs coach at Nebraska from 2008 to 2010), this quarterback battle is real and wide open. Green seems the logical choice to supplant Martinez as the starter if he is in fact supplanted.
Think back to last offseason. Tate Forcier was coming off a true freshman season for Michigan in which he showed tremendous promise and even led a couple of fourth quarter come-from-behind drives to defeat Notre Dame and Indiana. Michigan lost its final five games to finish 5-7. After the offseason, Forcier was supplanted as the starter by Denard Robinson. He has since transferred to Miami where he must sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules.
There are similarities between the two cases, but they're not identical. Nevertheless, it's not unheard of for Martinez, who last season earned Heisman chatter, to lose his starting job. As a part of the Nebraska coaching staff from last season, Beck clearly knows what Martinez is capable of. He has said, though, that he is not looking at game tape from last season in determining who will lead the offense in 2011. In Lincoln, what happened last season is no longer relevant. As the Huskers begin play in the Big Ten, they'll be led by whoever gives them the best chance to win. This time, that seems like more than just coach-speak.
Danny Hobrock, is a sports journalist covering NCAA Football and MLB. An NCAA Football On-Air Personality, Danny is the editor of our college football content. Danny's college football work has garnered national attention and has been critically acclaimed. You may email Danny directly @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ DannyHobrock
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