Nebraska’s three-horse race for starting quarterback job is off and running
LINCOLN — At some point in August, coach Scott Frost is going to darken the office door of quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco, and tell him it’s time to pick one starter from three contenders who have never taken a live game snap at Nebraska.
Until then, and especially in the first week of NU’s training camp, Verduzco can play poker — and have fun doing it. He even has the small, round sunglasses fit for a cardshark. He betrayed little Wednesday as it relates to the state’s biggest question: Who’s leading between walk-on sophomore Andrew Bunch and freshmen Tristan Gebbia and Adrian Martinez?
“They’re all right there,” Verduzco said. “They’re all right even. They’re battling.”
As he spoke, the three in question were arrayed around a carpeted, humid room on the second floor of the Hawks Center. Martinez, vying to be the first Husker true freshman to start a season opener, attracted the largest crowd and most of the cameras. Reporters talked over each other to get a word in with the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Martinez. Next was Gebbia, tucked in a corner, where he could see Martinez’s crowd as he spoke. Bunch, across from Gebbia, had the smallest gathering.
Each spoke longer than 10 minutes and stuck to talking points.
“Make the right play, not the big play,” Gebbia said.
Said Martinez: “Coach Frost and Coach Verduzco prepare us, whether it’s me or Tristan or Bunch.”
“When we got out on the field,” Bunch said, “I could tell there were no biases toward anyone as to who was going to play.”
Bunch doesn’t recall who got the first snap of camp. Verduzco said the snaps have been as even as possible, and the super-fast, high-repetition way NU practices allows for each QB to get a lot of snaps. All three, Verduzco said, have the respect of their teammates on the field and in the weight room. And all three now have a solid throwing motion.
Verduzco did drop that hint and rolled out one of his sayings at the same time: Martinez improved his “cha-ching” over the summer. The “cha” is the windup of the motion and the “ching” is the release. Martinez’s “cha” was slow in spring. Call it residue from Martinez’s shoulder surgery in 2017.
“Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching — he’s always chattering at me about that one,” Martinez said. “It’s a matter of bringing that quickness and speed and arm acceleration back and Coach Verduzco’s been hammering me on that. I feel better throwing the ball. I feel better with my ‘cha-ching’ as he will call it — when you decide to throw the ball and you throw it.”
Reporters, allowed to see 30 minutes of warmups Wednesday, saw a sharper motion and stronger arm from Martinez. Gebbia’s rock-and-fire looked the same. Bunch, perhaps the quarterback whose passes have the least oomph but the most touch, hit most of his receivers in stride, too.
Because the trio wears green, don’t-you-dare-tackle-them jerseys, it’s harder to determine how each is running the read option. Based on the spring game, Martinez — 60 yards — was the leader, but the quarterbacks wore green jerseys in April, too. Verduzco said all three can run the ball adequately.
The way Nebraska’s offense is structured, Gebbia said, quarterbacks need to pull the ball and keep it when they see at least five free yards ahead of him or he’s probably not giving NU’s seven scholarship running backs their best chance to make hay.
“We’re not Georgia Tech,” Gebbia said, referring to the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option “wingbone” offense.
Nebraska’s offense is unique in the Big Ten, though, and Verduzco’s teaching methodologies are, too. The quizzes, the assessments, the report cards to parents. He prefers his quarterbacks don’t visit outside teachers — “the gurus,” as Verduzco called them Wednesday — because he doesn’t want competing lessons rattling around in his pupils’ heads.
“You really want your quarterbacks to be hearing one voice,” Verduczo said.
Verduzco, in turn, sees the trio growing in their grasp of both the offense and the pace at which he’d like them to run it. He breaks down tape after practice. He arrives at 4:30 a.m. and leaves, well, near dark.
The quarterbacks’ lives are nearly as strenuous. Bunch said he wakes up at 6:10 and arrives on campus not long after. To outwork Gebbia, who keeps janitor hours, would be hard, but Bunch and Martinez put in the film study and daily assessment to stay sharp.
Perhaps where the quarterbacks differ most is in how they answer the same question: How do they know when they’ve had a good day at practice?
Gebbia: “I’m always hard on myself. I think there’s always room for improvement. I don’t think anybody at any position in the country has had a perfect day ever. That’s what we’re striving to be. We’re trying to be the best we can be. That’s something that’s not tangible in a competitor’s mind.”
Bunch: “I hold myself to a standard I try to meet every day. But, then again, the coaches will tell you, if there’s things you need to have corrected or if you were sharp that day. So I try to take in anything I can from the coaches, but also hold myself to a standard.”
Martinez: “It’s hard to judge that. You can go back and look at film and get a sense. For me, it’s about giving all my effort, going all out, whether it’s running out a fake, throwing the ball or whatever it is. I kind of judge my standard off of how our team practices. When Coach Frost says, ‘Hey, we got better today,’ I feel good.”
Verduzco likes plenty about each and he only has one job: This one. Developing and picking a quarterback. Iowa and Wisconsin have quarterbacks-only coaches, but those teams enjoy entrenched starters. Michigan’s quarterbacks coach has three titles. Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach is interim head coach while his boss, Urban Meyer, is being investigated.
At Nebraska, one of the media’s favorite interviews also has the eventual answer to the spotlight question. Has any quarterback taken the bull by the horns? Verduzco’s not dishing yet.
“All three of them,” he said.