His coach and teammates keep talking him up as an emerging leader, a take-charge guy in summer workouts who will be a natural fit in Nebraska’s new up-tempo offense.
Yet Big Red fans, who like to know everything about the players they cheer so fervently, are still trying to figure out the enigma that is Taylor Martinez.
Article continues below ...
They saw him as the fleet-footed quarterback who drew Heisman Trophy mention the first half of last season. They saw him as a sullen figure who kept to himself on the sideline when nagging injuries prevented him from playing parts of November and December.
They remember him at Texas A&M, getting poked in the chest and dressed down by an unhinged Bo Pelini after he called his father from the locker room while getting treatment for an injury. And they remember him as a malcontent who skipped a team function the next day, fueling speculation he was looking to transfer.
Martinez’s reticence to speak to the media only added to the mystery, and it remains unclear whether he’ll open up more this season.
”I’ll just play my game and see what you guys and fans say about me. I’ll try to do my best,” Martinez said Friday, the day before the Big Ten-bound Cornhuskers’ first practice.
Unlike a year ago at this time, when the starter’s job was up in the air, there’s no doubt Martinez is the man in charge of Nebraska’s offense.
He had been a scout-team receiver his first year in the program, then moved to quarterback and beat out fifth-year senior incumbent Zac Lee last fall. Martinez said he was reluctant to assert himself as a leader because many of the older players were loyal to the more vocal Lee.
Martinez said he was more comfortable heading into his sophomore season, and teammates say it shows. Nebraska opens up Sept. 3 against Tennessee-Chattanooga
”Taylor has grown into this individual that people look to. They go to him for answers. Young kids give him shout-outs on Twitter about how Taylor has taken them under his wing,” offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. ”Taylor has turned into this leader, which he needed to do last year. It’s hard to be a leader when you’re growing yourself. He needed to be a leader and now he is. I’ll follow that kid into the fires, wherever he takes us.”
Martinez showed a willingness to call out teammates who were sloughing off in summer conditioning. He and receiver Brandon Kinnie did extra running and throwing after 7-on-7 drills.
”I think he’s more engaged as a leader,” Pelini said. ”I think he’s really taken it upon himself to grow in that area. I think he’s becoming a tremendous leader on our football team, holding his teammates accountable, holding himself accountable.”
He also started to come out of his shell socially, spending more of his free time with teammates, going out to eat and to movies and, Kinnie said, ”just building the connections.”
”He may say some corny jokes, but he’s a funny dude,” Kinnie said. ”Getting to know him has been a blessing. I see nothing but good things for him.”
Martinez has been in the spotlight since he became the first freshman quarterback to start a season opener for Nebraska. He ran for more than 100 yards the first three games last season, including a 137-yard, three-touchdown outing in the nationally televised romp over Washington.
Through seven games he rushed for 870 yards, averaged 8.7 yards a carry and had 14 runs of at least 20 yards, including touchdowns of 67, 46, 43, 20, 80, 35, 80 and 41 yards.
But he wasn’t the same after he sprained his right ankle against Missouri. He totaled only 325 yards in his other five games.
”It killed everything in me because I couldn’t run the ball,” he said.
Martinez said he had learned that it’s smarter to slide or run out of bounds to avoid unnecessary hits.
New offensive coordinator Tim Beck plans to use a no-huddle system that, according to Martinez, will be 50-50 run-pass.
The 6-foot-1 Martinez has gained five pounds in the offseason and will begin practice at 205.
As a passer, he said he was ”pretty much the same” as the quarterback who completed better than 59 percent of his passes for 1,631 yards and 10 touchdowns.
As a runner, his teammates say he looks fully recovered from last year’s injuries.
Martinez, however, played coy when asked whether he was full speed.