Adrian Martinez has been through more than a few ups and downs over the course of his Nebraska football career so far.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, though, he had never been benched.
That marked a tough moment for the junior and two-time captain from Fresno, California. Instead of wilting or throwing in the towel, though, he made a decision.
“My mindset was that of a captain. Our captains are voted on by the team, and that's something that means a lot to me,” Martinez told reporters Monday. “It's an honor, and I owe it to those guys to give it everything I have; that was really my mindset.
“Regardless of the fact that I've been demoted, I was going to be there to support Luke (McCaffrey) and support our team because, I mean, that's what matters. That's what I came here to do, and my mindset didn't shift. I wanted to win. I still want to win, and showing up each and every day with that type of attitude and mindset? It’s what leaders do. It’s what good leaders do."
This conversation, perhaps, is even more pertinent to the current state of affairs at Nebraska than the fact that he returned to the starting lineup Friday against Iowa. Martinez completed all but two of his 20 passes for 174 yards in a largely smooth timeshare with McCaffrey.
Leadership, accountability, culture. These are the kind of words that find their way into the mouths of leaders like Martinez and other players who spoke Monday and what seem to be on the mind of coach Scott Frost. Frost talked after NU’s 26-20 loss to the Hawkeyes about things like showing up to class and studying for finals. Two more freshmen have left the program in the past four days in defensive back Ronald Delancy and receiver Marcus Fleming.
Frost regularly refers to the hallmarks of player-led accountability when he played for Nebraska in the mid-1990s and what that model looked like. The way Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom would handle any issues that cropped up before they reached the ears of coach Tom Osborne, even if dealing with those issues meant confrontation.
Martinez on Monday said he likes tough coaching. He doesn’t mind being held to a standard. In fact, he appreciates it. But being a captain in 2020 is a markedly different experience than being one in 1997.
“My opinion and my mindset towards that's kind of changed a little bit,” Martinez said. “I always kind of believed that great players, good players, they like to be coached hard. But people are different, especially here in Nebraska. Guys come from all different types of cultures and environments, so I believe it's kind of a case-to-case type of deal. Getting to know that person, getting to know that player and what motivates him is a big piece of that.
“I would say generally, with my generation, guys tend not to like to be yelled at, especially in group settings. So little things like that, you have to know, in my position as a captain and trying to get on those guys. Yeah, I definitely do that, but I don't want to yell in front of the whole team and embarrass them.”
Frost has said dating back to his days as the head coach at Central Florida that he and his staff run the kind of program that is more about positive reinforcement than yelling and swearing. He’s also pointed out that there are a time and a place for both types of messaging to players.
“I don't think there's as much tough love for a lot of kids when they grow up (now),” Frost said. “Our program is going to be about love first, and the toughness has to be built in along with that. That's how you reach players today, in my opinion, is if they know you care about them. And if you genuinely care about them, they'll do about anything for you.”
It doesn’t have to always be warm and fuzzy. Take senior safety Deontai Williams, for example. He’s a Florida native and spent time at junior college before coming to Nebraska in 2018. He wasn’t steeped in Husker football history and lore before he arrived on campus, but he said Monday that he feels a responsibility because of it.
“They got five national championships, and you see that every day when you walk into the building, so you have you have a set standard that you have to play (to) when you wear this uniform,” he said. "... It’s supposed to resonate with you, because this is the school that you chose to play for.
“You chose a tough-nosed school like this or a great program like this.”
There are tough and disciplined teams across college football, of course, and those characteristics can be built and developed in different ways. Whatever method is used to get there, it can have staying power.
Finding that recipe continues to be an ongoing pursuit in Lincoln. Frost said Monday that, "It's gotten better and better and better, but it's still got to come from the locker room a little bit, and we're trying to train that."
In the locker room, Martinez will continue to be a central figure.
“With what we stand for here in Nebraska, yeah, some of that is old-school tough love,” Martinez said. “There's definitely a place for that, and it does play a role here in our program. If you can have the combination of those two. Some guys, not everyone is going to be a perfect fit. Not everyone's going to love that style, but that's our culture.
“That's what the coaches want to establish. That's what our leaders want to establish.”
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