Nebraska quarterbacks have long fit a specific mold, one that requires certain characteristics:
Athletic, durable, adept at the option pitch, able to lead a run-first, -second and -third offense.
You won’t find “ability to pass” high on that list. A pass once in a while just to keep the defense honest? Maybe. But that’s about as far as it usually goes in Lincoln.
Taylor Martinez was a classic fit the past two seasons.
He’s trying to break out of that mold in 2012 — and he’s off to quite a start.
The junior threw for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns in Nebraska’s season-opening 49-20 win against Southern Mississippi last week, proving he’s more than a set of fleet feet.
“I’ve always known I can throw the football,” said Martinez, whose No. 16 Cornhuskers face UCLA (1-0) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, “but no one else has seen it.”
Those who filled the stands at Corona Centennial High during his senior year have seen it. Back then, Martinez racked up 2,994 yards passing and 28 touchdowns while leading the Huskies to a state title.
“In high school, I barely ran the ball,” Martinez said. “I was mostly a thrower. Hopefully, this year can be more like that.”
It will at least be different from his first two seasons at Nebraska, when the offense was more pound-on-the-ground than aerial. Martinez averaged 1,860 yards passing and 919.5 yards rushing during those seasons, generating some early Heisman Trophy buzz for his electrifying runs.
But any time he struggled to pass, critics referred to him as an “athlete” rather than a quarterback.
“It was funny to me because he was a great passer for us,” Centennial Coach Matt Logan said.
UCLA wide receiver Ricky Marvray, a teammate of Martinez’s at Centennial, also laughs at that criticism. “He can throw the ball around; you saw that last week,” Marvray said.
Martinez was a scout team receiver in his first season at Nebraska, when he was a redshirt. He knows his athleticism overshadows his abilities as a passer, but he worked on throwing the ball in the off-season with Los Angeles-based quarterback coach Steve Calhoun and attending the Manning Passing Academy.
He polished his game, perfecting his release, his ability to read a defense and more.
“He’s made great strides,” Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. “He put a lot of work in in the off-season and has had a great attention to detail in his preparation.”
Martinez has had time to work on those areas, time that was previously swallowed up trying to learn a system of offense installed last season under coordinator Tim Beck.
A season later, Martinez is more comfortable, especially in the passing game, which makes him a true dual-threat quarterback.
“That’s the beautiful thing about what he can do for our offense,” Beck said, “and that’s kind of a nightmare for other coaches.”
Martinez has said his goal is a 70% completion rate, a sizable jump from last season, when he completed 56%.
Against Southern Mississippi, Martinez completed 26 of 34, or 76%, of his passes.
“A lot has been made on whether or not he can take that next step,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. “All indications are he took a giant leap. He looked good in the pocket, he looked good outside the pocket. He can run the football. He does everything well.”
Martinez said he’s had Saturday’s game circled on his calendar for some time. He grew up loving UCLA, which projected him as a defensive back and ultimately didn’t offer a scholarship.
As for the Rose Bowl, Martinez has watched a few games there — he aims to lead Nebraska on a return trip in January — and dozens of his friends and family will be there Saturday.
Those familiar faces will see Martinez throw the ball just as he did in that championship high school season.
If he has his way, Nebraska’s season will unfold the same way.
Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.