Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Husker Notes: Martinez Aims To Lead

By Brian Rosenthal

Adrian Martinez stood before reporters Tuesday and confidently answered one of several questions about what he’s doing to assume a leadership role on the Nebraska football team entering his sophomore season.

“Leadership is performance” Martinez said, “and performance is leadership.”

Later, with reporters circled at a table around a seated Mario Verduzco, the Nebraska quarterbacks coach also answered questions about Martinez being a leader.

“Leadership is performance,” Verduzco said, “and performance is leadership.”

Yes, one reporter told Verduzco that his top quarterback had uttered those exact words. Verduzco flashed a big smile.

“Awwh! That warms my heart,” Verduzco said. “That’s good to know. Things are sinking in. That’s great.”

All joking aside, the phrase, obviously spoken often around the Nebraska quarterbacks room, holds a great deal of truth.

“We talk about those sorts of things all the time,” Verduzco said.

In fact, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said that having Martinez become the leader of the team is No. 1 on his to-do list during spring practices, which began Monday and continue Wednesday morning.

“He’s going to be whether he wants to or not, just because of the position he plays and how well he played last year,” Frost said. “He can’t back into that. He’s got to take it on, accept it and embrace it.

“He’s naturally going to be one of our leaders, but I want to see it go beyond that. I want to see him be the guy that’s setting the tone for the entire offense and the entire team. His play on the field is going to take care of itself.”

A year ago this time, Martinez was a true freshman, having been on campus for only a few weeks, simply getting his bearings and learning the playbook. Leadership, while not unimportant, took a backseat to more pressing issues.

Plus, it’s difficult for any true freshman to thrust himself into a leadership role, no matter the effort or desire.

Today, Martinez said his knowledge of the offense alone is allowing him more time to work on leadership skills. To this point, the progression has been natural.

“I’ve definitely tried to make it a point to take on more of a leadership role, more vocally,” he said. “That can be little things, signs of encouragement, little things around the weight room, just around campus. Just trying to do my best to let the guys know I’m there for them and try to do things the right way.”

Frost views a leader as somebody who brings teammates along with him and holds others accountable for their actions and behavior. As Martinez blossomed on the field last season, throwing for 2,617 yards while completing 64.6 percent of his passes, Frost also saw some of those leadership traits begin to emerge.

“He’s got the type of personality that people gravitate toward. So I think that even when he gets on people, people are going to accept it and embrace any sort of coaching he can give,” Frost said. “I want him to worry about accomplishing the mission and taking care of his teammates. Usually as a leader, if you start out with bringing one person with you, then two, pretty soon you’re going to be leading a bigger group, and I’ve seen that from Adrian, but we need to fast track that.”

Martinez isn’t the only Husker that Frost believes has leadership potential. He named sophomore defensive lineman Damian Jackson, senior defensive linemen Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis, junior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle, senior cornerback Lamar Jackson, senior linebacker Mohamed Barry, junior tight end Jack Stoll and junior offensive linemen Matt Farniok and Boe Wilson.

“There’s a bunch of guys – and I’m leaving some out – that need to take that next step,” Frost said. “We’re going to work with them to make sure they understand the responsibilities that come along with that.”

Frost re-iterated a key leadership element that was prominent when he played, and during Nebraska’s run of national titles in the 1990s: Any team is stronger when the voices in the locker room are the loudest voices, and players themselves fix the problems in the locker room before the coach even knows.

“I don’t ever want to run a top-down program that I’m micromanaging and running everything and fixing every little problem,” Frost said. “The more problems that can get fixed before they even get to the coaching staff, the better team we’ll have. And that responsibility falls on a lot of those guys.”

Center Of Attention

Beatrice native Cameron Jurgens, now wearing No. 51, is competing for a starting job at center, offensive line coach Greg Austin said.  

Jurgens had made the position switch late last season before being sidelined for good with an injury.

“He’s not 100 percent healthy yet, but he was a participant in practice yesterday,” Frost said. “(He) did a great job in the weight room gaining weight. He looks good. I wouldn’t say he’s full speed yet but he’s getting reps. Did a great job yesterday.”

Austin said Frost “was probably the pioneer” in recommending Jurgens put on some weight and play center after beginning his collegiate career as a tight end.

“He just has abilities and gifts that in some instances you can’t really coach,” Austin said. “It’s like coaching speed. You’re either fast or you’re not. Well, you’re explosive or you’re not. He’s just an explosive kid that is smart and has a leadership capability."

Domann’s Challenge

Safeties coach Travis Fisher said junior JoJo Domann “blew up” in the weight room over the winter and now weighs 230 pounds.

Whether Domann returns to Fisher’s group isn’t certain, though. Domann is beginning spring practices at outside linebacker, where he started twice last season after missing four games with an injury.

It’s a notable move, but not major, inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said.

“I think a lot of times in our system, especially with the way college football is now, certain outside linebacker positions and strong safety, they kind of overlap at times,” Ruud said. “I know the old school strong safety, it might as well have been an outside linebacker in our system.”

For this coaching staff, a big adjustment from the American Athletic Conference to the Big Ten Conference was facing bigger, block-first tight ends.

“A guy like JoJo, that’s probably going to be his biggest challenge this year,” Ruud said. “He’s a really talented athlete, understands coverage, can tackle in space. It’s being able to go in and play against tight ends when he has to that will be the biggest challenge for him.”

 

Locking State Borders

Ruud smiled and pumped his fist when someone reminded him the Nebraska coaching staff signed all five in-state recruits it targeted for the 2019 recruiting class.

Now, to keep that theme going.

“The goal for me is hopefully we get it back to the point where if we offer a kid from Nebraska, we’re just expecting him to commit,” Ruud said. “Right now, we have to prove it.”

Ruud, a Lincoln native who played at Nebraska from 2001-04, remembers a time when other schools were scared off from even trying to recruit Nebraska kids. Everybody knew their destination.

“I think my decision to 25 seconds to make,” Ruud said, “and I think a lot of kids were like that.”

Now, other schools aren’t afraid to come into Nebraska and offer the top talent. To change that, Ruud said Nebraska must first prove itself on the field.

“If you put a product out there that people like and can relate to, then it becomes easier to recruit,” Ruud said. “The product gets good on the field, recruiting gets a little better.”

That wasn’t so easy during last season’s 0-6 start.

“We believed in it, but you did feel like you had to sell it,” Ruud said. “That’s what’s no fun. You always want it to be, ‘Well, here’s the proof.’ We were kind of relying on proof that we proved the year before (at UCF). We went 13-0. We saw the program work like it’s supposed to work.”

One positive: Ruud did feel Nebraska proved itself and sent its message on the field over the second half of last season, even with a couple of losses.

“The product on the field usually speaks for itself, and it’s not always wins and losses,” he said. “Players see what’s going on. There’s a certain style on the field they want to see.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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