Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco is blunt on his opinion of Adrian Martinez, the newest player in his room.
“The first time I saw Adrian,” Verduzco said, “he reminded me of Marcus Mariota.”
Really, a comparison to a Heisman Trophy winner, already?
And from a coach?
Of course, Verduzco is the same person who told his head coach, Scott Frost, about another quarterback a couple of years ago, and how this guy reminded him so much of Vernon Adams. Sure, he’d need some guidance, some time to develop. But Verduzco saw a winner.
That guy, McKenzie Milton, just led the nation’s most potent offense to an undefeated record and berth in the Peach Bowl.
Ahem, so, what about this Martinez kid, again?
“There was a clip of him a junior where he just frickin’ took off,” Verduzco said. “I mean, he was gone. That’s what hit me.”
Verduzco saw a tall, fast player with a “good gun,” someone nimble-minded with a tremendous work ethic.
He used many of the same words in describing Milton, who started 10 games as a freshman before this sophomore breakthrough season.
“Obviously he brought a set of inherent skills to the table,” Verduzco told me over the phone from his coaching office at UCF. “He had a pretty good gun, he was light, he was quick on his feet, he was fast and he was a ‘quick blinker’ as we’re fond of saying. He was real nimble-minded. He could process and handle a lot of information quickly.”
And suddenly, in Fresno, California, there existed another quarterback with those same traits.
When coaches were able to hit the road recruiting, Verduzco made Martinez his first stop. He flew out to visit him at his high school, Clover West. He began a bond with Martinez and his family, and he became well connected with his coach, George Petrissans.
“We have a chance to have a pretty dang good player,” Verduzco remembers thinking.
But when decision time came, Martinez chose Tennessee over UCF.
That was in May.
Fast forward to December. Martinez had missed his entire senior season because of a shoulder injury, while UCF had completed a remarkable turnaround from 0-12 two seasons ago to 12-0 this season – so remarkable, that Frost garnered interest from several Power Five Conference schools with coaching vacancies.
Of course, Nebraska, his alma mater, convinced Frost to return home. The same day Frost met the media in Lincoln during his hiring news conference, Verduzco had an important phone call to make.
“I asked Coach P if he thought Adrian might be interested in Nebraska,” Verduzco said, “and he goes, ‘Yeah, no doubt.’”
Verduzco told Petrissans to have Martinez call him. If he calls, Verduzco knows he’s interested. If not, move on.
Within 5 minutes, Verduzco’s phone rang, and he told Martinez he’d be in his living room the next day. He was, along with Frost.
“I told him, ‘Adrian, there were a lot of quarterbacks when I first came to see you that were between Florida and California. You were our first. There are a lot of quarterbacks between Florida and California right now, and I’m coming there Monday. You are our guy. We love you. We think you are really special and can flourish,’ ” Verduzco said.
Suffice it to say, the visit went well.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Martinez, who took an official visit to Lincoln the following week, signed Wednesday, the first day of the inaugural early signing period for football. He’ll head to Lincoln in January to begin classes and will participate in spring football beginning in March. But first, Martinez will play in the Jan. 4 Under Armour All-America Game.
“I’m excited about him. He has a lot of potential,” Frost told the Big Ten Network on Wednesday. “When I was evaluating quarterbacks a year ago around the country, he was my favorite one. His ability to run and throw and his maturity as a kid are going to serve him really well, and for the offense that we run, I didn’t think there was a better fit in the country.”
Martinez completed 220 of 366 passes for 2,562 yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior, with just four interceptions. On the ground, Martinez ran for 1,462 yards and 14 touchdowns, with an average of better than eight yards per carry.
Both Frost and Verduzco rave about Martinez’s maturity, a good indication he’s prepared to compete immediately for not only playing time, but perhaps a starting job.
“I think it’s always possible, no doubt,” Verduzco said of Martinez starting as a true freshman. “Depending on the supporting cast, a young guy can come in as a freshman and flourish.”
Frost simply said Martinez will have an opportunity to compete for the starting job, just like every other single player on the Nebraska roster.
“We’re going to play the best players, whether they’re from Florida or California or Nebraska, whether they’re seniors or freshmen, I don’t care,” Frost said. “We’re going to play the best kids. But every one of them is going to have to earn it, and everyone’s going to have to come in and outperform the other people on campus.”
As the roster looks now, Nebraska returns senior Tanner Lee, who started every game in 2016, along with sophomore Patrick O’Brien and redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia. Of course, all three joined the team under the previous staff for a pro-style offense, not the spread style Frost brought to UCF and is bringing to Lincoln.
With that in mind, Martinez enters the competition on somewhat of a level playing field, although Verduzco is quick to point out he will have an objective evaluation throughout the competition for the starting quarterback position.
“I’m going to give them all of the playbook material that they’re going to need to function at a high level during spring ball,” Verduzco said, “and they’ll take a test, open book, on the playbook, and they’re going to take a closed book test. So from a purely cognitive standpoint, it’s easy to tell who’s doing the work and who’s not.
“From a skill standpoint, we have to learn how to do X-Y-Z in terms of the mechanics in our offense. Those things they’ll need to work on. Obviously, it’s going to be their first spring, and some of that stuff is going to need to be worked on after spring ball in the summer on their own, but they’re all doing to start at the same level.”
Upon joining the Nebraska staff, Verduzco initially called all of the quarterbacks to merely introduce himself. He did meet Gebbia face-to-face because Gebbia hosted Martinez on his official visit. He’s yet to sit down to evaluate film on any of the returning quarterbacks. What he’s seen, he’s seen only briefly when Nebraska played on television.
“They all wanted some playbook material,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, guys, we’re going to take care of that when you get back. I just think it’s important for you to enjoy Christmas with you family. Don’t worry about this stuff. We’ve got plenty of time to get this thing cranked up.’ ”
“There’s a process. There’s a way of getting it done, of getting a guy from Point A to Point B, to be a performer. But it starts with Coach Frost, just in terms of how we game plan, the input that he allows us to have, and how he calls plays and the way he does that. He puts them in a situation to be as good as possible.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.