“It’s somewhat like a point guard,” Nick Patti says of the ideal Scott Frost quarterback at Nebraska. “I hear the term ‘game-manager’ — that’s certainly not what their message is. Anyone who can make the offense work is going to be the starter.
“What they hang their hats on is being able to show a lot of different looks and do a lot of different things. Whatever quarterback allows them to be multiple, do a lot of stuff, smoke and mirrors, if you will. That’s who they’re going to go with.”
He’s seen it. Hell, he’s lived it. Two springs ago, Patti was where Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia are now — a veteran signal caller forced to start over, a holdover from an old coaching staff trying to make a killer first impression with Frost, Nebraska’s new coach, and with Mario Verduzco, Frost’s quarterbacks guru.
“It was completely open and I believed every word that they said,” Patti, who played three games behind center for Frost and Verduzco at Central Florida in 2016, tells Land of 10. “It was a completely open competition. They made it very evident what they were looking for.
“They wanted a guy who could grasp the system, and they’re big on their playmakers making plays. They just wanted guys who would manage it, but at the same time talented enough and athletic enough to make plays. Whomever turned the ball over less and made those plays and could make it happen.”
The Hawks Championship Center Handicap rambles on, the tea leaves only slightly less murky than we’d left them at Easter. Freshman Adrian Martinez fits Patti’s profile — athletic, smart, a fast thinker who can move, a high school point guard who thinks like one. But he’s also a teenager coming off shoulder surgery who hasn’t taken a proper game snap in almost two years. Andrew Bunch walked on in January 2017 after transferring from Scottsdale Community College but hasn’t sniffed the field.
UCF transfer Noah Vedral knows the system best, but his clock doesn’t restart until 2019. O’Brien and Gebbia are California dudes with rocket arms but weren’t recruited to run an up-tempo, zone-read scheme. Only O’Brien has ever thrown a pass in an FBS game.
And yet one of the misfit toys has to start in front of 90,000 on April 21, the spring game to end all spring games. Every answer has an asterisk, every course a caveat.
“I guess you could say, ‘Trust the process,’ ” offers former UCF center Jason Rae, who saw firsthand what Frost and Verduzco liked — and, more importantly, what they didn’t.
“In the beginning, it didn’t look pretty. But you know what the end results were. You keep working. The coaches have the formula to win. They have the formula to make sure you’re in the right spot. You’ve got to trust [that] they’re telling you the right things.
“As an offense and as a team we used whoever we got, that’s who we’re going to roll with … you don’t get caught up in who’s going to play or you get mad because you’re playing somebody else. In the first year, it’s going to happen, they’re going to be switching guys around. There were a couple games where we had two different quarterbacks at the same time.”
Frost’s first spring roster at UCF featured six quarterbacks duking it out, with Patti and fellow seniors Justin Holman and Pete DiNovo being the oldest in the room. Holman, the Knights’ incumbent starter since 2014, was announced as the No. 1 guy at the end of preseason camp, but he injured his hamstring in a loss at Michigan in Week 2.
Patti, a nimble 5-foot-11 local who’d signed with Boise State in high school only to transfer after the 2013 season, came off the bench at the Big House and threw for 37 yards and ran for 21. But Frost and Verduzco elected to start true freshman McKenzie Milton against Maryland the next weekend, and you know how the rest of that little hunch played out.
“I have zero ill will toward any of the coaches on that staff,” says Patti, who now works in medical sales in South Florida. “Our [competition] was so upfront and forward. They were very honest, very forthcoming.
“I have nothing but fantastic and positive things to say about that staff. I respect them a ton. They are super-hard working, honest people. They put a lot of [emphasis] into character. It’s one thing to [preach] it and another thing to live it. As an older guy, I’ve been around a couple of staffs — good and bad staffs. I didn’t come out of there with any ill will and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them.”
That said, Patti and Rae have five tips for Nebraska players and fans trying to settle into their new Big Red reality:
Tip No. 1: With Mario Verduzco, it’s best to compartmentalize
“He’s very intellectual,” Patti says of the Huskers quarterbacks coach. “He’s about as intellectual and detailed as they get. He’s very into mechanics, how the body works … the mental thing is with him all the time. He’s very much about studying.
“Everything has an algorithm feel to it, if you will. Everything about him is very intellectual.
“With young guys, it’s not just enough to learn how to be a college guy. With Coach Verduzco, it’s very important to compartmentalize and learn things one at a time.”
Tip 2: Be smart about your time
“I’d say learn things in terms of importance,” Patti says. “In terms of things you should learn now — and then learn things down the road.
“With Coach Frost, he really lets Coach Verduzco have the reins. He doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t give you two voices — the devil and the angel thing on your shoulder. He does a really good job of letting Coach Verduzco coach the quarterbacks. You can tell he’s got plenty to say, but at the end of the day it’s simpler to hear one voice.”
Tip 3: Pick Scott Frost’s brain where you can, when you can
“It’s important for young guys to try and pick Coach Frost’s brain as much as possible,” Patti says.
“As much above and beyond [as you can], try and get in front of him as much as you can outside of meetings. With so much of this system, it’s important that [you get] as much as you can from it.”
Tip 4: Be ready — and willing — for anything
“If I was someone who’d come to practice and didn’t know who he was, I’d think he was this crazy guy,” Rae says of Verduzco. “But he really does care about his quarterbacks. He instills in them just the process, or what it’s going to take. In the beginning, even McKenzie didn’t trust him … but after awhile, you start to understand.
“It’s not a fluke, he’s not just some coach. He’s very good at what he does. He wants everything to be perfect. You could see in the offseason — what he did to McKenzie is amazing.”
Tip 5: Sweat the details, because they will
“[Verduzco] was very big on that,” Rae says. “Even if the ball was thrown the right way, for him, it was, ‘His feet weren’t in the right spot,’ stuff like that. That’s the stuff I remember. Very detail oriented.”
Mechanics matter. So do pop quizzes on the playbook. This derby likely will be ongoing, well into the summer, with a few more twists and turns along the way.
It’s a marathon, framed by sprint after sprint after sprint.
“I think the biggest thing is the pressure of coming back home, not just for Coach Frost, but a lot of guys,” says Patti, who still talks with Verduzco every now and again. “I have nothing but confidence that they’re going to be successful.
“After being around them for one practice, you can tell these guys are different. And they have a system they believe in and they have confidence in — it’s obviously been proven at every level. So I have confidence that they’ll be extremely successful. They’re not far from knocking on the door.
“I’m not sure when. I won’t say [this fall] they’ll be in the playoff, but they’ll be kicking down the door very soon. I can tell you from Day 1, that’s going to be there from all the coaches — they want to win the division, they want to win the conference. You win that conference, you kind of control your own destiny.”
And once destiny sorts out who the heck is at the wheel, the rest has a funny way of taking care of itself.