LINCOLN — Nebraska starting quarterback Taylor Martinez hasn't missed a meaningful snap of Husker football since late in the 2010 season. But the fifth-year senior and captain could miss NU's game against South Dakota State because of a turf toe injury.
Martinez wore a gray hoodie and a walking boot on his left foot as he left practice. Coach Bo Pelini said he held Martinez out Monday and Tuesday from workouts, and will evaluate Wednesday and Thursday whether Martinez is fit enough to play Saturday. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has started 32 straight games since missing the Nov. 26, 2010, game against Colorado.
“If he's healthy, he'll play,” Pelini said. “We're going to make sure he's 100 percent and feeling good.”
If Martinez isn't, NU will start one of two backups — fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg or redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong. They split reps with the No. 1 offense in practice Tuesday, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said, and are “battling their guts out.”
Both played in NU's 56-13 win over Southern Mississippi, alternating drives. Armstrong ran for 23 yards, but didn't complete a pass. Kellogg was 4 of 5 for 24 yards passing, while running once for 9 yards.
Should Martinez not be ready, Pelini said, he and Beck would pick a starter between Armstrong and Kellogg based on “who can execute the offense and lead the offense and execute our game plan.”
Kellogg, an Omaha Westside grad and Martinez's best friend on the team, just received a scholarship this offseason. Armstrong is a highly touted recruit from a state-title winning program in Texas. Although they have different skills, Beck said, Nebraska didn't have to pare its offense down much to accommodate either player.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Kellogg is a veteran who “understands the offense” and “gets in good plays,” Beck said. In fall camp, the offensive coordinator called Kellogg “the ultimate backup quarterback” who can break down the offense in the film room as deftly as a coach.
Armstrong, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder who won a state title at Cibolo (Texas) Steele High School, “runs the football a little bit better than maybe Ronnie does,” Beck said, and brings energy. In limited action against Southern Mississippi and the spring game, Armstrong showed a deft hand at executing the zone read and the traditional option despite rarely running those plays in high school.
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“Great leader on the field,” Pelini said “He has a great command and presence about him and can do a lot of different things. He's a big, strong guy who can run, but he's a very, very capable thrower. I like what he brings to the table.”
Armstrong injured a knee prior to camp, had it cleaned out, and struggled to recover quickly to take complete control of the backup job. Pelini said Armstrong's “100 percent” now.
But Martinez was believed to be fully healthy going into the UCLA game. And he said after the loss he was healthy. Beck said Tuesday that Martinez's turf toe injury was “nagging” him before last Saturday. Martinez looked hesitant to run — and slower than usual when he did — losing 13 total yards on 10 carries. Beck said Martinez looked good in practice last week.
“He felt like he was ready, and I felt like he was ready,” Beck said. Neither Martinez nor any other player was made available Tuesday for interviews.
Martinez has played through injuries — disclosed and undisclosed — throughout his career, rarely admitting to reporters more than Sunday soreness. Beck said he'd make certain Martinez was forthright about his readiness to play against the Jackrabbits.
“We sat down and talked a little bit, and he's gotta be honest,” Beck said. “Probably the most difficult, hardest decision he'll have to make — the most unselfish thing he can do — is not play, and know it's a long season and he's got to get healthy, because we need him. In the long run, we're going to need the guy to come back and be the leader of our offense, because he is. That's a tough decision for him to make.
“A lot of people would think he wants to play and just get out there and do his thing. But he doesn't have to prove to me he's a tough kid. He's shown that over and over and over again through the years. If he can go, he'll go. I trust him to tell me that and do it. And if he can't, he can't.”
Regardless of who plays or starts, Beck said, Nebraska has started to narrow its focus of the offense in practice. NU will work on fewer plays in perhaps fewer formations to avoid becoming a “jack of all trades instead of a master of one.”
The Huskers' offense ran aground in the UCLA loss, going scoreless on its final eight possessions. Beck said he believed he could widen the scope of the offense with a veteran group of players, but mistakes in the first three games have proven him wrong. “A learning experience,” is how Beck described the discovery that his offense was struggling with a broader scheme.
“The details get you — and they got us,” Beck said. “So we need to focus a little better on narrowing the game plan a little better.
“We still want to be multiple and get people to play the whole field — play all of our personnel — and still get the ball in space to our guys and let our playmakers make plays.”