Scott Frost expects competition from Luke McCaffrey to bring the best out of Adrian Martinez

LINCOLN — The 2019 Nebraska football season came at quarterback Adrian Martinez pretty fast, coach Scott Frost said Monday.

Martinez struggled in part because of injuries and because, as Frost has often said, NU’s offense wasn't good enough around him. The Huskers made a big offseason change at offensive coordinator and receivers coach — going from Troy Walters to Matt Lubick — and signed a large recruiting class of receivers.

But Frost added a detail Monday that he hadn’t before about Martinez’s play in 2019, and why it’ll be different in 2020. He has more competition from redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and he’s preparing this year like he did when he was a true freshman in 2018.

“It’s his mindset and his approach,” Frost said. “He came in his first year and had to compete for that spot, and he looked like a competitor every single day in practice. Year two, I think because of the situation, he was able to put it in cruise control a little, and I think that showed up on the field a little more. That’s not to put everything on him ... but I don’t think he’ll be lax in his preparation ever again.”

In 2018, Martinez beat out Tristan Gebbia — who transferred just before the season — winning the job on the final week of training camp. Martinez was the clear starter headed into 2019, with No. 2 quarterback Noah Vedral as backup. McCaffrey had never played a college game.

Frost and other Husker teammates compared Martinez’s skill set to Patrick Mahomes'. But Martinez struggled mightily in the season-opener against South Alabama and only intermittently flashed the form he’d shown in 2018. He hurt his knee in a win over Northwestern; Vedral replaced him, beat the Wildcats and started the next two games. Martinez returned for a 31-27 loss against Purdue and clearly injured his non-throwing shoulder on a scramble. He then got surgery on that shoulder in the offseason.

McCaffrey — who crucially played in four games and kept his redshirt — shined in limited play, rushing for 166 yards and throwing for 142. He even played a little receiver because the Huskers were in need of a slot pass-catcher in a 54-7 win over Maryland. On Nebraska’s final drive of the season, Frost inserted McCaffrey into the game on the second-to-last play for a pass.

McCaffrey is part of a 2019 recruiting class that Nebraska believes will be the long-term key to success within the program.

But Martinez is also a two-year starter, and rarely are such incumbents usurped. His 2019 numbers — 1,956 yards passing, 626 yards passing, 17 total touchdowns — were still decent, given the injuries and the lack of production at receiver.

“He’s in a really good spot right now mentally, psychologically, if you will,” quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said with a smile during a spring football press conference. “I feel real good about where he is right now from that perspective. Losing takes a toll on everybody, particularly the position I coach. But he’s in a good spot.”

Martinez has been back in Lincoln since late March as one of the first players to return to NU’s campus amid the pandemic. Frost said he feels good about the quarterback position despite the departure of Vedral, who will compete for the starting job at Rutgers. McCaffrey is joined by freshman scholarship quarterback Logan Smothers and walk-ons Matt Masker and Brayden Miller.

Frost said it's possible that NCAA rules will be loosened so he can bring the entire roster, and all quarterbacks, to camp.

In an earlier interview with reporters, Frost praised McCaffrey’s work in the offseason. The redshirt freshman is also back on campus after working out with his brothers, NFL running back Christian McCaffrey and Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, at their home in Colorado.

“He’s one of the hardest-working kids on our team,” Frost said. “He spends all his time on football. He’s going to be ready. All the reports I’m getting is he’s whipping it around pretty good and it’s a lot better than anybody has seen him throw.”

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