After three years in the fish bowl as Nebraska’s starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez knows there’s nowhere to hide. Cornhuskers fans obsess over his every move, and if any of it bothers him, he’s not saying.
He’s one of the few who can truly relate to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. For he, too, was mentioned as a Heisman candidate as a true freshman and faced scrutiny at every turn. It seems like 100 years ago now, but it’s true.
“We probably have the craziest fan base in the country,” Martinez said. “So I’ve been pretty much dealing with what he’s been dealing with since I was a freshman.”
An ankle injury derailed that freshman campaign for Martinez, and questions about his unorthodox throwing motion have seemingly dominated the conversation ever since.
But over the past three seasons, Martinez has started 39 games, putting up numbers that have or will soon surpass those posted by Eric Crouch, Tommie Frazier and Turner Gill.
The difference, of course, is that those former Nebraska quarterbacks all won conference championships, with Frazier also securing national titles in 1994 and 1995.
The Cornhuskers switched from the Big 12 to the Big Ten in 2011, heading into Martinez’s sophomore year, and they’re still looking for their first conference championship since 1999.
Most of last year’s dissatisfaction in Nebraska was aimed at a defense that imploded in the team’s four losses. Remember the fabled Blackshirt Defense? This one allowed 214 points and 2,380 yards combined in those four losses last year, which included Wisconsin’s 70-31 romp in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Fixing that defense is priority No. 1 for sixth-year coach Bo Pelini, and the Cornhuskers need to replace eight defensive starters. They are especially young at linebacker and on the defensive line.
“It’s nothing magical,” Pelini said. “It’s about tackling better, executing better. It’s not a scheme thing. At the end of the day, you have to execute.”
A marginal amount of defensive improvement should go a long way because the Cornhuskers might have the Big Ten’s most explosive offense again. Martinez works behind an experienced offensive line, along with junior running back Ameer Abdullah (1,137 rushing yards last season), and several pass targets are back, including Kenny Bell (863 receiving yards).
It’s an offense that can switch from the shotgun formation to the pistol, from the hurry-up to the slow-it-down — all within the same set of downs.
“It’s really hard to game-plan for,” Martinez said. “I don’t know how a lot of teams do it, just because of how explosive our offense is. I guarantee you we have the fastest offensive team in the country.”
Martinez passed for 2,871 yards last year and rushed for 1,019 — racking up 33 combined touchdowns passing and running — but he also made 20 turnovers, including 12 interceptions and eight fumbles.
He led the Cornhuskers to four wins last year in games they trailed by at least 10 points in the second half. But he also made two turnovers before halftime in losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Georgia.
This May, the Corona, Calif., native spent four more weeks with Los Angeles-based quarterbacks guru Steve Calhoun. They worked on his mechanics, especially his footwork.
“I think Taylor’s night and day from where he was as a freshman,” Pelini said. “I think the best is yet to come with Taylor, and that’s saying a lot because he’s had a heck of a career up to this point.”
Martinez has put up 9,449 yards of offense, blowing by the school record of 7,915, held by Crouch, who won the 2001 Heisman.
But for all his success as a dual-threat quarterback, Martinez has been openly mocked as a passer. Last September, before the first of two games against Nebraska, Wisconsin defensive lineman David Gilbert said, “It still looks like he’s skipping rocks out there to me. … I’m just going to say it. He still can’t throw. He’s not going to beat us with his arm.”
Martinez answered with a huge comeback victory, leading the Cornhuskers to five scores in their final six possessions in a 30-27 home triumph. Moments like that have endeared him to Cornhuskers fans, and the obsession only seems to grow.
This June, Martinez made a quick stop at a Lincoln shopping mall and was almost instantly recognized. He started signing autographs, and before he knew it, security guards had set up a line for the fans. More than an hour later, Martinez went on his way.
Of course, that same fandom helps gives the Cornhuskers a decided home-field advantage. Nebraska is 19-2 at home in Martinez’s three seasons, including 7-0 last year. This year, the Cornhuskers will play eight home games, starting with the first five games of the season.
Nebraska just added 6,000 seats to Memorial Stadium, pushing capacity to 92,000.
“If the crowd gets into it, the place gets rocking,” Martinez said. “[The seating addition] will kind of close off the place a little bit, so it should be a lot louder.”
The whole schedule seems favorable, as Nebraska avoids Ohio State and Wisconsin. If the Cornhuskers emerge with another Legends Division title, they’ll have a chance to redeem themselves in Indianapolis at the Big Ten Championship Game.
At that point, Nebraska fans might even paint a sign: “How do you like the rock skipper now?”