LINCOLN — In the race to be Nebraska’s starting quarterback, Tanner Lee didn’t shy away from embracing two key advantages working in his favor.
First, he started 19 games at Tulane before transferring to Nebraska.
“Drills and film study can’t really teach experience,” Lee said, “and I think having that experience helps me in all facets of football on and off the field.”
Second, he looks and plays a lot like the quarterbacks who flourished in coach Mike Riley’s offense at Oregon State. Since Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf moved to NU two seasons ago, Husker fans have seen only part of the pro-style system, which the coaches modified to fit the run-better skill set of Tommy Armstrong.
But the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lee, who left Tulane because it switched to a version of the spread run offense that Nebraska once employed, sees himself as a guy who can do what Riley and Langsdorf, his position coach, ask of him.
“I think I’m a good fit — a real good fit,” Lee said. “It’s a big reason I came here, because I could see myself playing here, being successful in this offense.”
Lee’s in a battle with freshman Patrick O’Brien for the starting job. Both redshirted last season — mandatory for Lee, optional for O’Brien — while Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe finished their careers. Lee and O’Brien got extra work in special Sunday practices for redshirts and backups. They learned the offense and bonded with teammates. Both battled back natural feelings of wishing they were out on the field leading the team.
Through three practices, they’re “evened up,” Langsdorf said. They’re getting equal repetitions and taking turns. Lee looked better on Tuesday. On Thursday, O’Brien may have had the edge, Langsdorf intimated. Both quarterbacks, he said, are completing more than 70 percent of their passes in practice.
“We’re real open with it,” Langsdorf said. “We haven’t announced a starter, we’re repping it like we haven’t announced a starter, and we’re evened up. It’s one of those things where, every day, you might think a little differently about a guy.”
Langsdorf grades each play, run or pass. He then gives the grade sheets to quarterbacks so all of them see the grades and comments for each play. O’Brien called that process “kinda cool.”
On run plays, Langsdorf said, he wants to see his quarterbacks make sure the offense gets into the best play based on the defensive alignment. On pass plays, Langsdorf wants good decision-making and, above all, accuracy.
“Being able to complete balls, that’s the No. 1 thing,” Langsdorf said. “When we have a play that we’re going to throw the ball on, and we have an open receiver and the protection is good, we have to be able to complete the ball. That’s going to be the biggest factor in winning the job.”
Accuracy is defined in part by completion rate but also by where the quarterback places the ball, preferably in a spot where the receiver can make a play after the catch. Another key is good decision-making. Langsdorf likes, for example, Lee’s willingness to “check down” the ball to running backs open on shorter routes rather than waiting fruitlessly for something better to open up downfield. Correctly identifying checkdowns was a recurring problem for Husker quarterbacks in recent years.
“He’s not standing back there taking sacks,” Langsdorf said. “He’s getting the ball out of his hands. That’ll be big for us. It’ll help out our protection.”
A “leadership factor” is important, too.
“Be vocal enough — and also have the actions that speak,” Langsdorf said.
Broadly speaking, teammates have praised Lee’s leadership ability. When he transferred in from Tulane last summer, Lee built relationships with some of the older, outgoing players and started building bridges to contemporaries, too.
“I think I was just myself,” Lee said. “I don’t think I really changed anything. I developed a lot of great relationships. I clicked with these guys right away.”
Lee threw for 3,601 yards and 23 touchdowns over two seasons at Tulane, one of which — 2015 — was cut short by various injuries.
After that year, Tulane fired its coach, Curtis Johnson, who had run a pro-style offense, and hired Willie Fritz, who installed a spread-run offense. Only one team in college football threw for fewer yards last season than Tulane; Lee would have been as odd of a fit for that offense as Troy Aikman once was at Oklahoma.
So he sought to transfer. Lee picked Nebraska — which was in a position to offer a scholarship — and petitioned the NCAA to regain an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA granted it. Lee credited his father, Phillip, with helping him request the extra season.
Lee said the environment at Nebraska is “unmatched.”
“It’s all football,” Lee said. “Everything here. There’s no distractions. I think it’s wonderful. It’s great. I can just focus on school and football. I don’t know how to put it in words. That’s all there is here.”
As for the competition, Lee said both quarterbacks will benefit. He wants to work on “little things” like quicker reads and sharper throws. Accuracy is, after all, at a premium.
But Langsdorf also wants his quarterbacks to avoid bad errors like forcing the ball into traffic or taking an unnecessary shot deep when the correct decision is the check-down for good yards right in front of them.
Lee, an apt pupil, knows the mantra.
“It’s how many good plays you make,” he said, “and how many bad plays you don’t make.”