Nebraska wants Taylor Martinez to become a better passer this season. Along with that, the 17th-ranked Cornhuskers need him to be the runner he used to be.
Lost in the scrutinizing of Martinez's throwing motion, a popular pastime for folks in this football-crazy state, has been the drop-off in his rushing numbers the second half of last season.
Martinez prioritized his throwing mechanics in the off-season with the idea that defenses will be hesitant to load up to stop the run if he's more effective passing. He hired a personal quarterback coach and attended the Manning Passing Academy last month. Coaches and teammates say they see a difference through two weeks of preseason practice.
"I think his best football is ahead of him," coach Bo Pelini said. "He's had a tremendous off-season. I'm glad he's our quarterback."
The Huskers ran more than two-thirds of the time last season with Rex Burkhead getting most of the carries. Second-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck is planning a more balanced spread-option scheme, but knows how dangerous Martinez can be if he's running well. The junior is 17-8 as the starter, including 8-0 when he runs for 100 yards. The Huskers are 4-6 when he's held under 50.
Nagging injuries have limited Martinez since the second half of the 2010 season. He said he's 100 percent now. "Hopefully this year I can take more hits and run the ball a lot more," he said.
Martinez averaged 97 yards rushing as the Huskers started 5-1 last season. He ran for 41 yards a game during a 4-3 finish. He completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,089 yards with 13 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
Dropped balls hurt his numbers, but so did poor throwing form. He often put the ball behind and over receivers. He would miss the mark on long passes when he leaned back and threw awkwardly off his back foot.
Martinez spent his spring break with Los Angeles-area quarterback coach Steve Calhoun, who changed his footwork and delivery. Martinez worked with other college quarterbacks at the Manning camp, picking up tips on mechanics and leadership from NFL stars Peyton and Eli. He immersed himself in film study this summer with graduate assistant Joe Ganz, the Huskers' quarterback in 2008.
The first day of preseason practice, Martinez raised eyebrows when he said his goal was to complete 70 percent of his passes this year. Told that only eight FBS quarterbacks with a minimum of 15 attempts a game were able to achieve that mark last year, the 57-percent career passer didn't waver. "I don't look at what other quarterbacks do. That's what I want to reach."
Martinez's confidence is fueled by the fact that the Huskers will be entering their second year in Beck's spread-option system and second year in the Big Ten.
"Last year we kind of switched it up a lot and we really didn't know what coach Beck wanted early on in the games," Martinez said. "We really didn't know how to prepare for them and a lot of times when we went into a game we had to change up our game plan. We know what defenses are going to give us this year, so it's a lot better for us and coach Beck."
Tight end Ben Cotton said Martinez saw his reads, stuck to his reads and got the ball where it needed to be during this summer's seven-on-seven passing drills. "I'm proud to say Taylor has come a long way as far as being more comfortable and more confident," Cotton said.
Nebraska didn't play a spring game because of inclement weather, so fans haven't seen Martinez throw a pass since the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina. That hasn't stopped them from slicing and dicing his passing skills on Internet message boards and radio shows.
"He was a freshman and sophomore and people were critiquing the degree of his arm when he threw it and the steps he was taking," receiver Kenny Bell said. "Obviously, the fundamentals are important. But heck, if you make plays, you're good with me."