Throughout the first half of the 2010 season, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez was in the discussions as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate. However, during the second half of the season these discussions were quickly forgotten as Martinez struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness.
The question heading into 2011 is whether or not Martinez can recapture his form and once again be considered one of the nation's elite players.
There is reason for both optimism and concern as Taylor Martinez is preparing to enter his second season as the Huskers quarterback. With that in mind, let's take a look at the factors that will determine if Martinez can be a legitimate Heisman contender in 2011.
Taylor Martinez had the best game of his career against Oklahoma State as he passed for over 300 yards and ran for over 100 as well. The very next week, however, Martinez suffered an injury that would hamper him for the rest of the season.
In the first half against Missouri, Martinez was brought down with a high ankle sprain and did not play in the second half. The Husker quarterback was not himself the rest of the season and only topped 25 rushing yards in one game after his injury, against lowly Kansas.
The injury brought to light some holes in Taylor Martinez's game that up to that point had been overshadowed by his blazing speed and explosive athletic ability. Having lost a step due to the injury, Nebraska was forced to rely more on Martinez's arm and for the most part, it wasn't pretty.
If Martinez can stay healthy in 2011, it would make sense that he would look more like the quarterback that torched Oklahoma State for over 400 yards of total offense. However, with a quarterback who is a run-first type player, Martinez's ability to stay healthy is anything but assured.
One thing people have to keep in mind about Taylor Martinez, myself included, is that he was only a redshirt freshman last year. He started on opening day and hit the ground running.
His early success made it easy to forget his lack of experience, which is why it seemed so unusual when Martinez struggled. The truth is, it would have been unusual if he would not have struggled as a player in his first season playing college football.
That said, many of Taylor Martinez's deficiencies may be cured simply by him being a year older and a year wiser. A large developmental jump should be expected for the Nebraska signal-caller as he enters his second year as the starter.
However, if Martinez continues to struggle with the exact same things he had problems with last year—injuries, inconsistency and maturity—then there will be real reason for concern.
Last year, the Nebraska offense was run by Shawn Watson. He was a coach with a background in the West Coast offense and a holdover from the Bill Callahan era. Watson was asked to use a system that had a bigger resemblance to a zone read or spread option offense than a West Coast one.
As you can imagine, this did not go terribly well and Watson was let go following the 2010 campaign. Taking over for Watson is Tim Beck, who head coach Bo Pelini believes can integrate a more up-temp Oregon style offense into the Huskers' game plan.
Considering Taylor Martinez's strengths lie in his running ability and any success he has in the passing game stems from defenses trying to stop him on the ground, it would appear as though this year's scheme will be a much better fit for his skill set.
Obviously this change does not make it a guarantee that Taylor Martinez will be in the running for the Heisman Trophy, but it is definitely something that should help him become a more successful quarterback.
Something about the idea of Taylor Martinez throwing the football that makes me cringe a little bit. I'm not sure if it is his slightly awkward throwing motion or the deer-in-the-headlights look he seemed to get at times when dropping back to pass.
Either way, the passing game is clearly Martinez's biggest weakness. I'm not saying the guy needs to be Peyton Manning or anything even close to that. What I am saying is that if Martinez can develop into even an average passer then he will become that much more effective as a runner and will be an even bigger nightmare for defenses.
Furthermore, developing as a passer will help Martinez stay healthy because it will keep defenses honest and they will not be able to load up on Martinez knowing he is only a threat to run.
The problem is, I am not entirely convinced that Martinez is capable of becoming a good enough passer to make this a reality. After watching plenty of his game type in both high school and college, I noticed something about Martinez that has me concerned about his ceiling as a passer.
When Martinez drops back to pass, he makes one read and if his first option is not open, he takes off to run. In other words, when his number one target is covered, he uses his feet to gain yards rather than using them to gain time to find an open receiver.
Because of his terrific running ability, this has usually worked out for him, but as we saw last year, if he loses a step for whatever reason (injury, fatigue, etc.) this plan is no longer effective. The best dual-threat quarterbacks almost always use their running ability to keep the passing play alive and only run as a last resort.
This is the case for two reasons. First, the longer a pass play is alive, the more likely it is that a receiver will break open and passing plays have more big-play potential than running ones. Second, it is a simple matter of self-preservation.
Quarterbacks are only useful if they're on the field to lead their team, which becomes much less likely the more they run down field and subject themselves to punishment.
I'm not saying it is impossible for Martinez to develop this ability, but I believe part of it is a natural instinct and that can be a very difficult thing to reprogram.
That leaves us with our original question: Will Taylor Martinez be a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender in 2011?
My answer here has to be no. At least not in 2011.
Martinez will likely have a better year as a sophomore than he did as a freshman, but I don't think that will be enough to put him in contention for the Heisman.
When it comes down to it, the added experience and a new offensive coordinator that will be able to fit the offense to his strengths will help Martinez have a good, possibly even great, season. However, all projections on Taylor Martinez's 2011 season much be qualified with "if he can stay healthy" and that is a very big "if."
Finally, I believe the one thing that would push Martinez over the edge into the land of the stiff-arm trophy is his development into a true dual-threat quarterback and I do not believe he is there yet. If he does get there, it will probably be in the 2012 season.
Taylor Martinez could still lead Nebraska to a Big Ten title and a BCS bowl, but he will not be a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender in 2011.