Adrian Martinez pulled off an incredible feat in his first season at Nebraska, something few who came before him had done at a place where football is a year-round passion.
Martinez didn’t just live up to the hype that followed him from Fresno, California, to Lincoln as coach Scott Frost’s first recruit. He exceeded it.
He was the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for the Cornhuskers, and he became the most productive rookie in program history.
How much is expected of him this fall?
Here’s one indicator: The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook last month listed him behind only Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence on its initial Heisman Trophy odds board. Martinez, along with Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, is plus-600, meaning a $100 bet would pay $600. Tagovailoa is plus-250 and Lawrence is plus-300.
“It’s humbling,” Martinez said. “Obviously, it’s an award that you grow up knowing about. At the end of the day, that is not my primary focus. My primary focus is getting better each day and helping this team win more games. That’s what matters. Everything else will take care of itself.”
The Huskers, who play their spring game Saturday, are projected to be one of the most improved teams in the nation after going 4-8 in Frost’s first season. They started 0-6 and then won four of their last six. The last two losses were by five points at Ohio State and by three at Iowa on a last-second field goal.
Martinez played through the requisite bumps for a freshman to lead the Huskers’ offense to its highest national ranking (25th) since 2008. He set single-season school records for games with 400 yards of total offense (three) and total offense per game (295.1 yards). That’s in addition to school freshman records for passing accuracy (64.6, passing yards (2,617), passing touchdowns (17) and total touchdowns (25).
Now he’s looking for more.
“Obviously, my overall game needs to improve,” he said. “Certain decisions I made in key situations, I would love to take back. That happened in a few different games, and having that experience has allowed me to get better and better. Getting to look back on it, I can’t promise I won’t make a mistake, but I try not to make the same mistake twice.”
Offensive coordinator Troy Walters said he’s noticed an increased maturity in Martinez. He’s gotten stronger, and though he’s still listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Walters said he thinks the quarterback is a bit heavier and faster.
The 19-year-old Martinez also has grown into more of a leader.
“He’s brought guys along with him,” Walters said. “So the receivers, they know it’s not acceptable to drop a ball, it’s not acceptable to run the wrong route. And if they do, he’s the one getting on them, not me. So he’s taken that step with the freedom and the right to get on guys when they don’t do the right things.”
Martinez built capital with his play last season, and Frost told him over the winter to assert himself more.
“I want to see him be the guy that’s setting the tone for the entire offense and the entire team,” Frost said. “His play on the field is going to take care of itself. It’s hard to be a real leader as a true freshman, but it’s time for him to step into that role.”
It’s a message Martinez has taken to heart.
“I try and get the offense together, get them fired up,” Martinez said. “It’s kind of an every minute, every second of practice type thing. Constantly trying to encourage guys, keep everyone up, keep the energy up. Sometimes last year I think you (fell) into a trap of just being so concerned about yourself and what you can do, but really it’s about bringing everyone along.”