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Mario Verduzco shook his head and gave a small chuckle at the question. What’s the best way to keep so many quarterbacks happy?
“Boy, I don’t know,” the Nebraska quarterbacks coach said. “We’re going to find out together.”
The comment came last March, days before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring practice and shut down the country. The Huskers at the time had as many scholarship quarterbacks in the fold as they ever have under coach Scott Frost — Adrian Martinez, Noah Vedral, Luke McCaffrey and Logan Smothers. Verduzco said Frost would prefer to have five scholarship QBs on any given team.
Instead, the total has gone down. Vedral entered the transfer portal in April and eventually surfaced at Rutgers. McCaffrey last week also departed, destination unknown. Kearney Catholic graduate Heinrich Haarberg joined the program this month as part of the 2021 recruiting class, giving the position three scholarship players. Walk-ons Matt Masker (Kearney Catholic) and Brayden Miller (Kearney) are also in the mix, and another walk-on, Jarrett Synek (Hastings), will arrive in the summer.
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The movement leaves the Huskers as unsettled at quarterback as they’ve been under Frost. The only rival is 2018, when NU played much of the season with walk-on Andrew Bunch as the No. 2 behind Martinez before Vedral became eligible that October as a transfer from UCF. The team’s current room features an up-and-down, oft-injured incumbent in Martinez as the only QB with any college game experience.
“Certainly feel like (Martinez) has the talent to be as good as there is in our league,” Frost told The World-Herald last week. “If we get some mistakes taken care of, he’s got a chance to be special.”
The 21-year-old Martinez is the clear favorite to begin a fourth season taking snaps at the center of Nebraska’s offense. He’s a two-time captain and 28-game starter, representing longevity that has earned him an influential voice in the locker room and deep knowledge of Frost’s up-tempo spread attack. Barring an unlikely elite transfer option coming available, NU’s offseason quarterback battle will be a one-horse race.
For all his imperfections on the field, Martinez’s ability — or at least his potential — has pushed other quarterbacks away. Patrick O’Brien left in the spring of 2018, and Tristan Gebbia followed in the final days of fall camp that year after losing the battle for the starting job. Vedral secured a starting role elsewhere after two years as the Husker backup. McCaffrey may follow a similar path.
The presence of Martinez was also enough for Nebraska to stand pat before the 2018 season and not pursue a transfer addition. That included an interested Joe Burrow from Ohio State, a story the national media have repeated often about the No. 1 NFL draft pick.
Nebraska QB emigrants have proven worthy of major college football elsewhere. O’Brien played two seasons at Colorado State and transferred to Washington last month. Gebbia started four games at Oregon State last fall before a leg injury ended his campaign. Vedral began seven games for Rutgers in 2020 as its most prolific passer in years, throwing for 1,253 yards and nine touchdowns.
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The Huskers have had three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in each of the three seasons under Frost. Eight Big Ten teams carried four scholarship QBs last year, and NU was one of five with three. Only Rutgers held five.
Whether Nebraska uses one of its two remaining 2021 scholarships on another quarterback — a transfer or high school player — perhaps hinges on how it feels about Martinez’s current backup. Smothers, a freshman, didn’t appear in a game last year after arriving from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but traveled to every contest and was always on the headset with coaches. He was the No. 2 option at Rutgers in the season finale with McCaffrey on the sidelines in street clothes.
“Logan’s a good player,” Frost said in December. “He has a little bit of work to do still, but what I really like about him is his ability to see the field and make decisions. He makes really quick, decisive decisions, gets the ball out of his hand and is a really good athlete. One of the key things for quarterbacks in this system if they’re going to excel is being able to think fast and be one step ahead of the game. I definitely see that trait from him.”
One of the top prep sprinters from his home state has also demonstrated a long-term commitment to Nebraska. He pledged to the Huskers in the summer of 2018, before Martinez had run a college play, often turning away other high-profile suitors before they could make their sales pitch.
The last time Smothers played in games that mattered, he was completing 76% of his passes for 2,204 yards and 28 touchdowns (against seven interceptions) in Alabama’s second-largest high school classification. He showcased his explosive run game with 93 carries for 809 yards (8.7 per carry) and 13 more scores. All that came in barely 70% of his team’s quarters amid blowout wins.
Those around Smothers point to his toughness, like when he pushed through multiple cracked ribs, a collapsed lung and hip pointer during a 2019 postseason run. He’s also more experienced as a quarterback than either Martinez or McCaffrey were upon their arrival. His father, Shane, played QB at North Alabama and is a prep offensive coordinator. His older brother, Landon, also played behind center at UNA.
“I'll be pushing,” Smothers told The World-Herald before he arrived in Lincoln last year. “I want to compete — I mean, that's who I am. I'm a competitor. I'm going to come in and compete and be the best I can be."
Haarberg enrolled at NU this month and will undoubtedly redshirt this fall. The son of a former Husker walk-on fullback doesn’t figure to be much of a transfer risk as he adjusts to college life and the offensive scheme. A standout sprinter and high jumper, he attracted multiple Power Five offers for his size (6-5, 190), big arm and intelligence. He has the kind of clay NU coaches like to mold.
“I think with some training, he has a chance to be really good — a really good quarterback for us,” Frost said on signing day. “... He’s really committed to being good.”
Meanwhile, Nebraska continues to recruit 2022 QB prospects with offers out to at least 11 uncommitted players around the country. The search may also be ongoing for a transfer, perhaps after the spring when junior college and FCS teams are scheduled to complete their delayed seasons. That situation is complicated by the reality that most transfers are looking for immediate playing time. That isn’t something the Huskers can sell for this fall, and maybe not even for 2022 if Martinez decides to return for an unprecedented fifth year as a college starter.
Frost expressed optimism during a radio appearance Thursday that NU already has its QB answers in house. But, he added, “if we don’t, we’ll keep our options open.”
Verduzco said in March that identifying future quarterbacks is an inexact science. How quickly do they process information? How similar is their offense to what Nebraska runs? What are they like as leaders in good times and bad?
“You ask as many questions as you possibly can,” the coach said. “But you’re never going to know for damn certain until they get on campus.”
Even then, as Nebraska has found, that’s only the beginning.
Luke McCaffrey's departure has placed a lot of attention on the future at quarterback for Nebraska. Here's a look at who the Huskers have targeted in the 2022 recruiting class.