Husker notes: Adrian Martinez steps up as a leader as competition for his backup remains tight

Husker notes: Adrian Martinez steps up as a leader as competition for his backup remains tight
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez hands the ball off to running back Wyatt Mazour. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was pleased with the effort of the offense on the team’s first day back from spring break.

The sophomore starter said he’s working on the details this spring that could turn into more wins in the fall.

“Starts feet up, so gotta work on the footwork, and obviously mentally you can always improve, situations, certain decisions, so just trying to get better everywhere,” Martinez said.

Martinez is being pushed by coaches to become more of a leader, so he’s become more vocal in the huddle, and he’s gotten plenty of practice at that early. The defense is much more confident this spring than last, Martinez said, so it’s making plays.

“Honestly, when they go out there and make a great play I’m like, ‘All right, guys, we gotta respond,’” Martinez said. “I mean, I try to get the offense together, calm them together, get them fired up. But it’s kind of an every minute, every second of practice type thing. Constantly just trying to encourage guys, keep everyone up, keep the energy up.”

Last spring, Martinez said he was a little more worried about how he was personally doing, understandable for someone in the midst of a quarterback battle. But that’s not the case this year.

Competition tight for backup QB

While Martinez is entrenched as Nebraska’s starting quarterback, the battle for his backup rages on.

Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco breaks down the competition succinctly. Noah Vedral is feeling “a heck of a lot more comfortable” than last year, when the UCF transfer from Wahoo, Nebraska, didn’t get spring reps and didn’t know if he would be eligible to play. Walk-ons Andrew Bunch and Matt Masker have been solid. Early enrollee Luke McCaffrey is displaying “great” knowledge of the offense.

Bunch is a junior, while no one else in the room is older than a sophomore.

“The thing I reminded them about this morning is we’re still a young group,” Verduzco said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have the expectations of you like you’re a senior like we did last year. But at the same time, be a little patient with yourself.”

There isn’t much separating the group right now, Verduzco said. The biggest evaluating tool might be decision-making and what each QB may or may not see from play to play.

“We want to get to the point where there’s no appearance of guessing, so we know exactly what we’re doing,” Verduzco said. “That’s something that we’re building on right now as we make our way through spring that we want to get better at.”

Vedral appeared in one game last year, while Bunch saw action in five, including a start against Troy following a knee injury to Martinez.

McCaffrey has also had growing praise this spring.

Martinez said he was taken aback by how much McCaffrey knew of the offense when he stepped onto campus in January.

“He’s really driven, works hard, he’s eager to just do everything right,” Martinez said. “When we were talking when he first got here, he was talking like he had been here for a year already, and I was like, ‘Man, this guy knows what he’s doing.’ So obviously there’s learning curves when you go out and play against our guys, but he’s doing a great job so far.”

While Nebraska tries to keep sophomore running back Maurice Washington on a “consistent” schedule in the classroom as he works through legal issues, running backs coach Ryan Held has had the chance to take a longer look at backups and, on Monday, sneak a few repetitions to true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson.

The much-hyped rookie will play more receiver in college, but he was a prolific high school running back in Kentucky.

“Oh, I think he’d be really good if he was with me all the time,” Held said, chuckling. “He’s smart, he just has football savvy. He’s just a really good football player. Now, one thing I’m not going to do is put the cart before the horse, and make him the Big Ten freshman of the year — that’s not fair to him — but he definitely will be a guy who will be an asset to the offense.”

Held and offensive coordinator/receivers coach Troy Walters share a script that splits Robinson’s time between positions and features him in a group of plays. Once the season hits, NU’s game plan will mix Robinson’s talents into the offense.

“We want him to continue to expand with the whole offense, but then there’s some specific things.”

Fly sweeps are one such play. Nebraska almost exclusively runs that play out of the shotgun.

Sophomore back Jaylin Bradley, Held said, had good plays in Nebraska’s pre-spring break scrimmage but “needs to run with his hair on fire” more often.

“Like an NFL guy trying to make a squad,” Held said.

The best embodiment of that so far, Held said, is Millard West redshirt freshman Brody Belt. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound back caught a touchdown in the scrimmage on a wheel route. He also added a 40-yard run while reliably picking up blitzes.

“He’s made plays out there against the 1s,” Held said. “I’m excited about him as a football player who can do something on this team. … He understands the offense and he’s patient. He allows things to develop up front.”

Said Walters: “He’s really caught our eye as a staff.”

Belt ran for 1,567 yards, added 214 as a receiver and scored 26 total touchdowns as a prep senior in 2017.

Held said Belt will be a contributor sooner than later.

“I wouldn’t have any qualms putting him out there,” Held said. “I think he could go out there and execute this offense and do a lot of good things. And he has a good speed set to him where he can pull away from people.”

Senior Wyatt Mazour hadn’t been fully healthy, Held said, until Monday. The spring break allowed him to heal up and be aggressive in practice. Nebraska is using him in the Duck back/receiver hybrid role, as well.

“He’s a veteran, he knows the offense really well, so he’s always helping coach some of the newer guys,” Held said. “He brings a lot of value.”

‘No hangover’ for Huskers

A week off for spring break did nothing to slow down the Nebraska offense Monday as it resumed spring practices.

Walters recalled last season, when the Huskers needed two or three days to get back into the full swing of workouts. Not this time.

“There was no hangover, so to speak,” Walters said.

The coach instead observed fresh players, enthusiastic attitudes and quick snaps. Playing time, depth charts and roles continue to be established with the April 13 Red-White game less than three weeks away. But he said the fact that everyone returned bright-eyed and trouble-free from vacation is, in itself, a good sign.

“Obviously they took care of their bodies,” Walters said. “It shows us as a staff they’re putting team first. You can still go home, you can still get away, but their focus is on the University of Nebraska and this football team and making sure that they don’t lose all the gains that they’ve made up until this point.”

Woodyard springing ahead

Jaron Woodyard laughed at how funny his own words sounded. He feels like a veteran player now.

A year ago, the Arizona Western transfer was trying to pick up the offense from afar. He didn’t come to Lincoln for good until late May. In hindsight, that delayed arrival was a “major setback” in his understanding of the playbook. Touted as a take-the-top-off-the-defense burner, the 5-11, 190-pound wide receiver made one catch for 10 yards in eight games.

“Last year was a learning experience just getting the offense down,” said Woodyard, now a senior. “We really know the offense now, so it’s just how fast we can go in tempo and everything.”

Walters spoke in as much detail about Woodyard as any other pass-catcher when asked about standouts at the position.

“He’s a guy that now he feels comfortable in the offense,” Walters said. “And he can play fast.”

Woodyard and Walters both listed redshirt freshman Andre Hunt as another Husker separating himself at the position. Hunt appeared in two games as a true freshman and traveled to all five road contests.

Also of note, Walters brought up redshirt freshman walk-on Wyatt Liewer, who “shows flashes” during workouts. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound receiver from O’Neill, Nebraska, was on the practice squad last season. Walters also said JD Spielman and Mike Williams are adapting to being more vocal leaders while Kade Warner does a “great job” in that regard.

Quick hits

» Several former Huskers who are now in the NFL — Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale and Zach Sterup — were working out Monday inside the Hawks Championship Center, and 2019 NFL draft hopefuls Stanley Morgan and Devine Ozigbowere there, as well.

» Offensive line coach Greg Austin said Monday that sophomore Matt Sichterman has moved from tackle to guard and is making progress.

» Bradley and linebacker Breon Dixon were among notable Huskers who peeled off from the main group to the auxiliary locker room after practice.

» Coaches had no significant updates on Washington, who continues to go through the legal process. “When he’s out there football-wise, he’s doing a good job,” Walters said.

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