What to Expect of Martinez as a Passer
Early in the career of Taylor Martinez, he looked like the second coming of Heisman winner Eric Crouch. A potent running threat and at best a capable passing threat. Those who tuned into the Big Ten preview of Nebraska over the weekend heard commentator and former coach Gerry DiNardo temper expectations that the offseason work by Martinez will result in dramatically improved passing. Using Crouch's career as a guide, what kind of progress might be expected then?
Unlike Martinez, Crouch wasn't the day one starter as a redshirt freshman. NU had been preparing Bobby Newcombe to take over for Scott Frost. It was only after injuries to Newcombe that Crouch was thrust into a starting role. That year he completed less than 49% of his passes, for fewer than six yards per attempt with as many interceptions as touchdowns. As a rusher, he showed flashes of his considerable talent with 4.8 yards per carry and 5 scores. Even going into his sophomore year, Crouch was prepared as a backup to Newcombe (and also saw time at receiver). By the third game of the season though, he'd seized the starting job. He finished the year as a nearly 52% passer, with close to 8 yards per pass attempt and a 7 to 4 touchdown to interception ratio. His rushing also improved to 4.9 yards per carry with 16 scores as he was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. The team finished 12-1 and second in the country as well.
Martinez regressed between his first and second years in most categories. Martinez completed over 59% of his passes as a redshirt freshman with 8.3 yards per attempt and rushed for nearly six yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns. As a sophomore the completion percentage fell to 56% and only 7.3 yards per pass attempt. His rushing also fell to 4.6 yards per carry with 9 touchdowns, though some of that may have been deliberate since Martinez was much more inclined to slide rather than finish his runs by being tackled. Martinez did improve his touchdown to interception ratio with 13 touchdown passes and 8 interceptions as a sophomore after 10 scores and 7 picks as a freshman.
If Crouch had a "sophomore slump" you could say that it came in his third year (his second as a primary starter). His completion percentage dropped to 48% with 7.1 yards per attempt. His touchdown to interception ratio dipped to 11 TD's versus 7 picks. His running continued to improve though as his yards per carry climbed to 5.7 with 20 touchdowns. If you consider Crouch's junior year as analogous to Martinez's sophomore year, then perhaps it will be Crouch's senior year that's the most telling about what's next for Martinez.
As a senior Crouch's completion percentage rose to nearly 56% and his passes gained 8 yards per attempt. Unfortunately, his touchdown to interception ratio fell to just 7 scores against 10 INT's. The good news would be that it was possible to improve his completion percentage by nearly 8%. That might translate to Martinez being a 64% passer. The bad news is that experience doesn't make one immune to mistakes in the passing game and so it might not be reasonable to expect huge gains in passing touchdowns or huge declines in interceptions. Crouch's rushing numbers also dipped slightly, but were still impressive.
As DiNardo put it, it's Martinez effectiveness as a runner that might ultimately be the most important aspect of his game. It was Crouch's rushing rather than his passing that made Nebraska a conference champion and that put the Huskers in a national championship game. Any offense is going to have to throw the ball at times and you need some efficiency there. Still, you probably can't look to the passing game as NU's best chance to hurt defenses. Taylor will have to be competent enough in the passing game to keep defenders honest, but it's his running prowess that will likely be the difference between a BCS bowl and the Outback Bowl for Nebraska.