Quarterback decision looms at Nebraska
As excited as the entire Nebraska campus is about the move to the Big Ten in 2011, Cornhusker fans may have something more immediate to be ecstatic about during the dog days of summer.
A potentially competent leader on offense.
Taylor Martinez’s excellent performance in the team’s Red-White game to cap off a sterling spring practice showed many in the crowd of 77,936 fans why the coaching staff is so high on the redshirt freshman signal-caller.
And why Martinez could be considered to start the season opener in Lincoln against Western Kentucky on September 4.
The 6-1, 185-pounder from Corona, Ca. tossed touchdowns on two of his first three series in the spring showcase and rushed for a game-high 60 yards in his Red squad’s 21-16 victory. More importantly, his steady play was a refreshing change from the often-maddening results the Huskers have seen at the position in recent seasons.
While the competition for the starting gig under center will continue deep into fall camp, Martinez at least asserted himself during spring drills. But Zac Lee and Cody Green will still have the slight edge once the Cornhuskers return to campus in preparation for the 2010 season, mostly because of their game experience.
Let’s take a look at the main combatants entering the fall:
Zac Lee: Last year’s starter threw 14 touchdown passes in ‘09, but he also connected for 10 interceptions. The worst aspect of his play was his tendency to struggle in some of the Huskers’ biggest games. And while the offensive line didn’t always offer the support necessary for stability under center, the 6-2, 215-pounder failed to bail out his offense more times than not. And a starting quarterback just has to be able to do that once in awhile. Because the senior needed surgery in January to repair a torn flexor tendon in his throwing arm, he was forced to miss spring practice — likely hurting him as Cody Green and Martinez received more reps and time to impress. But he’ll be healthy in the fall, and he’ll have as good a chance as anyone to show coaches that he could be the stabilizing force under center for the Huskers.
Cody Green: The 6-4, 225-pound sophomore attempted only 62 passes in sporadic play — including starts against Baylor and Oklahoma — throwing for 317 yards along with two scores and two interceptions. However, unlike Lee, he didn’t struggle in some of Nebraska’s biggest games. And he gave the offense a different look with his ability to run, gaining 158 yards on the ground — including a season-long 49-yard run on his first carry — and two touchdowns. He had a solid spring with Lee on the sideline, leading many to believe that he enters the fall with a slight edge in the competition because of the number of reps he received with the first-stringers. Green is a threat in both the passing and running game, as he possesses a strong arm and great running ability. His dual-threat nature is perfect for the Huskers’ offense.
Taylor Martinez: Nobody stepped up quite like Martinez this past spring. Rumors of his great speed and running ability circulated throughout the offseason, and Husker Nation finally had the chance to see it on display in the spring game. In addition to his 60 yards on the ground, he added 79 through the air. But more importantly, he energized the offense — which was exactly what the Huskers needed last year when the defense was all too often hung out to dry. He did throw a pick in the game, but his quickness and athleticism have put him firmly in the middle of the derby. Unless he has a horrible fall camp, it will be hard to at least not see some packages being designed for him if he ultimately doesn’t win the job.
Regardless of who is under center for the opener or at any point during the season, he must be able to improve on the Huskers’ second-to-last league ranking in completion percentage and keep defenses honest enough so they don’t stack the line in an effort to stop the running game, led by Roy Helu, Jr., who was the brightest spot on offense last season.
My gut instinct says that Lee will get the nod, as head coach Bo Pelini has said that he won’t lose the job because of injury. His numbers weren’t great last year, but it’s unclear how much his injured arm affected him. A soft opener at home wouldn’t be a bad place to start Martinez if Pelini feels that he gives his team the best chance to win, though.
There’s no question that if Nebraska wants to reclaim an invitation to the BCS party — and the talent is there to go back to the Big 12 title game in its final season in the conference — improved quarterback play is essential.
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