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Adrian Martinez won Nebraska’s quarterback battle, but winning games will mean more

August 28, 2018

LINCOLN — Adrian Martinez swapped a red Nebraska polo for his own T-shirt and headed for the elevator. Lunch time.

The Huskers’ new starting quarterback learned that news Saturday evening before NU went public with a depth chart released Sunday morning. He had just finished his first Monday media tour of duty as “the guy,” roughly 15 minutes answering questions in front of dozens of reporters and cameras, then another 15 minutes doing television interviews and fulfilling other obligations.

At noon on the nose, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Californian rode down from the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium to the training table for a quick bite before class. In a bustling hallway, he continued to receive looks and congratulations from other student-athletes.

Sophomore offensive lineman Matt Farniok made a funny face and slapped Martinez on the back as the quarterback reflected on the eight-month journey that brought him from injured Tennessee commit to the first true freshman to start a Nebraska opener.

“Really, coaches felt like the offense had a better chance of excelling with me at the position rather than (Tristan Gebbia),” Martinez said. “They just felt like I’d be able to run the offense more efficiently.”

Martinez learned he had won the job during a one-on-one meeting Saturday with NU quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco before an open workout in front of the student body. He excitedly called his father and stepmom with the news.

But the euphoria didn’t last long, he said. Five minutes later he was thinking about Akron.

“I want to win,” Martinez said. “When we win, that’s when I’ll be on cloud nine. The mission hasn’t been accomplished yet in my mind.”

The 18-year-old flashed maturity beyond his years throughout Monday’s press conference. He’s been equally poised in interviews conducted since he was offered a Nebraska scholarship moments after the coaches’ last regular-season game at Central Florida on Dec. 2.

Martinez empathizes with Gebbia, his friend and teammate who wanted the job as badly as he did. Gebbia didn’t practice Monday.

Martinez described his approach to leadership as being neither a rah-rah cheerleader nor a silent example. “I think it’s just working hard,” he said. He knows he’ll make mistakes and fan expectations will be sky high.

“He doesn’t ever let any moment be too big for him,” sophomore defensive lineman Ben Stille said. “He’s definitely really poised for a freshman — more poised than I ever was coming in.”

Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he took a straw poll of his assistants late last week and received a consensus that Martinez offered the best chance to win games. The 2019 season and beyond did not play a factor, Frost added. This decision was about winning games this year, though there are benefits to a QB banking early experience.

And what was it that convinced Nebraska coaches that Martinez was their best bet? It has to do with the explosive running ability he displayed during the spring game, when he ran for 60 yards on 14 carries with three touchdowns.

“I think Adrian’s athletic ability was probably the factor that broke — if there was a tie — that broke the tie,” Frost said. “... I think at the end of the day we’re more dangerous if we have a quarterback — if the throwing is close — if we have a quarterback that’s a threat to run it.”

Most of the Huskers learned of Martinez’s appointment through secondary means. Senior defensive lineman Matt Jarzynka found out on Twitter “like everybody else.” Offensive tackle Brenden Jaimes is on a social-media fast and didn’t hear the news until Monday morning.

“He doesn’t play like a true freshman,” said Jaimes, who will protect Martinez’s blind side Saturday against Akron. “He’s got that swagger on the field, and I’m happy he has that because we’re going to need some leadership back there. But he’s been doing good. I’m proud of him.”

Martinez enrolled in January and began building up the strength and endurance he lost when a shoulder injury forced him to miss his entire senior high school season. Verduzco helped him work on his throwing motion — what the coach calls a “cha-ching” — during the summer. The true freshman made his final move in a competition that pushed up against Frost’s timeline of picking a starter a week before the opener.

The role of the quarterback in Frost’s offense is about efficiency, Martinez said. Know when to throw, when to keep the ball, when to hand off. Distribute to the right playmakers at the right time.

Now he’s earned the right to put it all on display to open a new era of Nebraska football.

“I think always in my mind, I believed I was destined, in a sense, to play quarterback and excel,” Martinez said.

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