LINCOLN — Recruiting hype doesn’t draw up a depth chart.
Nebraska freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien is proof. So is Tanner Lee, a transfer who can’t play a down for NU this season but has turned a few heads with his strong arm in training camp.
Barring a rare string of injuries, neither will play this season. Two fifth-year seniors, Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe, are the Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks, and that’s not changing.
“I’d be lying if I said this was wide open,” coach Mike Riley said Wednesday.
But observers can see emerging a quarterback battle for 2017 — and beyond — between Lee and O’Brien.
A third candidate, AJ Bush, announced on Twitter Thursday he planned to transfer.
O’Brien, who will be the No. 3 quarterback this season, threw some of the prettier passes in spring camp and a few more gems in preseason camp.
Lee looked comfortable in the offense during Saturday’s scrimmage. The strong-armed transfer from Tulane got a nice bonus from the NCAA last week: an extra year of eligibility. Lee must sit out this season, but he has two years left to play college football, thanks to a rule that allows a transfer to reclaim a year of eligibility after a previous head coach is fired and a new coach’s system is so different that a player no longer fits at his previous school.
Lee will run the scout-team offense this season.
“He’ll be as tough a challenge as they’ll get every week,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “It’ll be great for our defense.”
Langsdorf and Riley have not hesitated to praise Lee, a 6-foot-4 205-pounder who was a two-star recruit out of New Orleans (Louisiana) Jesuit High School. Riley likes the quickness of Lee’s release, seen by media in Saturday’s scrimmage when Lee fired a deep out pass as the receiver made a break on his route.
“He gets rid of the football just like that,” Riley said. “That ability eliminates a lot of problems.”
Lee’s composure and easy, natural manner with teammates has impressed Langsdorf.
“He looks like a veteran guy who’s played three years of college football,” Langsdorf said.
O’Brien — 6-4, 225 — has just begun his career at Nebraska. He’s eight months in. He has moments in practice where his footwork, decision-making and delivery are on point, and, within 15 yards of the line scrimmage, O’Brien quickly finds a rhythm.
On deeper passes, O’Brien puts more air under the ball than some of his teammates. In one drill, he overthrew a receiver and swiped at the air in frustration.
“I think he’s trying to do it right and be detailed, but we don’t want him putting so much pressure on himself that he can’t play loose,” Langsdorf said. “He’s just got to take a deep breath and be confident in what he’s doing.”
A four-star quarterback coming out of San Juan Capistrano (California) Hills High School, O’Brien enrolled early at Nebraska and said at the time of his enrollment that he wanted to vie for immediate playing time. General fan disgruntlement over the play of Armstrong and Fyfe, O’Brien’s fit with a pro-style offense and the natural fascination with the “new guy” combined to create the possibility that O’Brien could compete for the job.
But the starting spot belongs to Armstrong, as it has since Riley’s staff arrived in late 2014. O’Brien has consistently taken snaps with the lower units.
“That process of being kind of a star, being a big recruit — and then he gets to college and everybody’s pretty good — is an eye opener,” Langsdorf said.
Young quarterbacks like O’Brien need stiff competition to develop, Langsdorf said.
“I think it makes him work harder and play better,” Langsdorf said. “We don’t want anybody rolling in here and thinking they’ve arrived — ‘Here I am, I’m going to be the guy.’ I think it’s good for all positions to have that competition. It’ll be good for him.”
Armstrong himself went through the process in 2012, when he arrived from Cibolo (Texas) Steele High School. He redshirted as Taylor Martinez helped the Huskers win a division title. Armstrong said he immediately sought out older veterans on the team — guys like Kenny Bell and Jeremiah Sirles — to learn from and watch.
Make a name for yourself among teammates, Armstrong said, with hard work.
“I wanted to become a film junkie — be up there as much as I could and learn as much I could, just in case,” Armstrong said. “Prepare like you’re the starter. We preached that every day.”
Lee has already been there. He started 19 games at Tulane. He’s experienced the ups — throwing for three touchdowns in a win at Houston — and downs — struggling with injuries and completing just 9 of 22 passes in a loss at SMU.
O’Brien still has to experience those things. Langsdorf is looking forward to watching him work through the process.
“It’ll be good for him,” Langsdorf said. “And he’s done some good things. He’s looked good. He’s thrown the ball well. He’s a work in progress, but he’s learning.”