March 12, 2012

NU coaches happy with depth behind Martinez

Last year at this time, the quarterback position was a relative unknown for the Huksers. Taylor Martinez was the returning starter and a lock to keep the job, but behind him sat nothing but question marks.

Incumbent backup Cody Green transferred to Tulsa and highly-touted Jamal Turner was moved to receiver. That left redshirt freshman Brion Carnes and walk-on Ron Kellogg III, neither of whom had a down of game experience.

This spring finds the Huskers in a similar situation, only more names have been added to the mix. True freshman Ryker Fyfe and redshirt freshman Tyson Broekemeier and Bronson Marsh have joined the fray to compete with Carnes and Kellogg as Martinez's backup.

"Being a two-year starter, (Martinez) still has an advantage because he's played two years and he's seen a lot more," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "But (the other guys) grasp it better too. They've gotten a chance to see it another time and it's becoming a part of them."

Broekemeier, an Aurora native, turned down offers from South Dakota and North Dakota to walk on in 2011, though he missed the season with an injury.

Fyfe enters the program in similar fashion, spurning smaller schools like Nebraska-Kearney for a chance to walk on at Nebraska. The freshman threw for 20 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more at Grand Island last year.

The surprise contender is Marsh, who, like Broekemeier, joined the team in 2011, but did so as a safety. After a standout career at Millard South, the Huskers thought his athleticism would be a bonus in the defensive backfield.

But after drawing rave reviews for his scout-team work in mimicking South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw in preparations for the Capitol One Bowl, Marsh began to have a change of heart. He and coach Bo Pelini talked about making the switch back to quarterback, and Marsh wanted to give it a shot.

"He said 'I've always dreamed of playing quarterback at Nebraska and I think I can do it and I'd like a shot at it,'" Pelini said. " I told him we will continue to communicate through the whole process and if we feel that it isn't going to happen, we can sit down and talk about it and move you back to defense. That is kind of how we have been going about it. We want him to have ownership and play where his heart is."

Though the coaching staff is happy to have the three walk-ons to compete with Kellogg, Carnes will get every chance to retain his spot as the second-stringer. The sophomore played sparingly last season, attempting just two passes, the same amount as running back Rex Burkhead.

But that doesn't mean the coaches aren't confident in Carnes or his abilities to pilot the team if Martinez would go down.

"I think this competition will ramp up this spring and I think Brion has made a lot of strides this off-season and through the winter," Pelini said. "He will be fun to watch as the spring goes on and I think the position as a whole has to keep refining and getting better and working on strengths."

After a year in Beck's offense, the Huskers expect to be more efficient in the passing game this season. Martinez said he felt the offense didn't have an identity early on last year, but it does now. When asked what he thought the run-pass ratio would be this season, the junior responded, "I hope it to be 50-50."

Martinez's experience makes the coaches comfortable with his ability to run the offense, making that ratio a possibility. But could the same be said if Martinez were to go down with an injury?

It's an impossible question to answer at this point, but the Huskers clearly feel more settled at backup this year than they did last, and Carnes' improvement is a key cog in that. He gives the coaching staff confidence that an injury to Martinez wouldn't cripple the offense as much as it has in years past.

"I think it's knowledge," Beck said. "Obviously in this system, the quarterback can put us in any play, the best play possible. He struggled with that. That's part of being able to get to the best play - you've got to know the best play in order to do that. It just comes with experience. The more he's done with that, the better he's become."

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