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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

For Martinez, Night and Day Strides

How to describe Taylor Martinez’s throwing mechanics over his freshman and sophomore seasons? Start with a word: ugly. No, start with his feet. Everything that went wrong would begin with his feet, then travel up his legs to his hips, then to his shoulders, then to his eyes, and finally, at long last, to his right arm. It all started with his feet.

To be more precise, on a step-by-step basis, Martinez’s woes would begin with his back foot. As he raised his first arm, his throwing arm, Martinez’s back foot, his right foot, would take a wobbly step away from the line of scrimmage. If he was dead-center in the middle of the pocket in the middle of the field, Martinez’s back foot would stray towards the right pylon – off target, in other words.

He would then transfer his weight entirely onto his back foot. As his arm moved towards the line of scrimmage, all of Martinez’s weight would remain on his back foot, leading to a looping, lobbed, rainbow of a toss – not to get ahead of myself. His lead foot would splay out away from his body, not in a straight line, resulting in even further inaccuracy. In short, no starting quarterback in college football had worse mechanics.

So how did Martinez spend his summer vacation? He remained in California, near his hometown, and worked with noted quarterback guru Steve Calhoun on retooling his failed delivery. All I heard throughout the summer and during fall camp was how much better Martinez was as a passer; he was transitioning his weight as he threw, taking weight off of his back foot – he was a different player, in short.

You saw this yesterday afternoon; you saw it right from the start. On Nebraska’s second possession: Martinez steps back to pass, looks towards the right side, doesn’t like what he sees, and resets, shifting his line of sight and his vision towards the left side, where he found an open receiver for a seven-yard gain.

All short gains aren’t created equal. In that one throw, you saw the end result of a summer’s worth of work. Martinez displayed proper mechanics, a proper read and a solid delivery, showcasing the sort of in-pocket guile that went utterly missing over the vast majority of his first two seasons in Lincoln.

By the end of 60 minutes, Martinez had the best passing line of his career: 26 of 34 for 354 yards and 5 touchdowns without an interception. I counted two bad throws. I counted zero terrible throws. Martinez wasn’t even needed on the ground, gaining only 10 yards on 6 carries. His arm was enough.

It was enough for Nebraska to weather a potentially troubling storm: Rex Burkhead, the Heisman candidate, scored on a 57-yard run on the first series but left the game shortly thereafter, due to a sprained knee. At halftime, Bo Pelini said that he “likes the backs” Nebraska has, and that Burkhead’s injury wasn’t overly serious – he just would miss this game. Presumably, he’ll back for the U.C.L.A. game next Saturday. If he’s not, Martinez will again take center stage for this offense.

Losing Burkhead was one issue. Another was Nebraska’s head-scratching woes on special teams: Brett Maher, the all-American, missed a pair of kicks between 40-49 yards – from 44 and 41 yards, respectively. How good have Nebraska’s special teams been over the last near-decade? The Cornhuskers haven’t missed two field goals between 40-49 yards in a season since 2004.

Burkhead’s injury and the kicking game: worries for Saturday. But Martinez’s game was one of the most unexpected individual performance of the day – and it was the top individual performance of the day in the Big Ten, and perhaps nationally. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? And most of all, can he continue this level of play against U.C.L.A., Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten?

Heisman campaigns are made in November. But they’re born in September, and Martinez, like the Spartans’ Le’Veon Bell, made a strong case for some early love. Yes, it was Southern Mississippi – and yes, the Golden Eagles are rebuilding under a new coaching staff. But Martinez’s passing game can be summed up in one phrase: jaw-dropping. From one year to the next, no player in football seems to have made a greater improvement. That’s big, big news for Nebraska.

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