Mike Riley

Mike Riley acknowledged to BTN that with a change in quarterbacks, this year in some ways is like starting over. “This team has the makings of a good team. It needs growth.”

LINCOLN — It wasn’t a sign of optimism. It was more like an arrow.

Tanner Lee’s pass arched to the corner of the end zone, where it dropped from the sky over two defenders and into JD Spielman’s hands as he fell to the ground.

Words don’t do the spring game touchdown justice. But here’s another one:

Wow.

Somewhere, the make-or-break Nebraska coach said to himself, “That’s what I’m talking about.”

Which beats what some other people are talking about.

It’s early, it’s spring, it’s the third spring. But there’s a narrative out there that this third Nebraska season is a “make or break” season for Mike Riley.

In fact, I heard a Big Ten Network analyst use that exact phrase last week talking about Riley on BTN.

Make or break? In terms of possibly being fired after three seasons? Please. That’s absurd.

In some ways, this is Riley’s first season. And I was glad to hear the head coach allude to that the other day on BTN.

The question to Riley was, “Is this where you thought you’d be going into your third year?” The answer was most interesting.

Riley said, “I would like to say yes. ... I feel good about the team and its energy for football.

“But when you are transitioning the skill set of the quarterback, are you as far along as you would be if this skill set had been there right from the start? Probably not.

“But we like the talent. This is going to be kind of like starting again.”

The quote was an eye-opener because, in his first two years, Riley rarely went there.

It’s not his personality. And it served no purpose.

It was obvious the quarterback position here wasn’t stocked when he arrived. And veteran Tommy Armstrong was a guy who didn’t fit Riley’s offense and Riley struggled to work something around Armstrong.

It’s not an excuse. It was the reality of a coaching change. Again, I’m glad Riley acknowledged it. And now he’s ready to move on.

A lot of folks are ready to move on.

What they saw on Saturday should help.

The top three quarterbacks were slinging it, all over the yard, with velocity and accuracy. They didn’t waste a lot of time or motion. Their passes were crisp. Their footwork precise.

Lee, the transfer from Tulane, was terrific. He finished 13 of 19 for 190 yards and three touchdowns, including the raindrop to Spielman. He has the best arm on a Nebraska quarterback since the Zac Taylor-Joe Ganz era, and it probably goes back a lot further than that.

The one thing Lee didn’t look proficient in was the deep ball. But his short and intermediate throws, so far, are things of beauty. And those are staples of Danny Langsdorf’s West Coast offense. The deep ball, not so much.

Based on Saturday, I expect Lee to be named No. 1 going into the fall.

Patrick O’Brien wasn’t far behind, though. His 11-for-17 for 134 yards and a touchdown included a lot of good stuff, accurate stuff.

Third but certainly not least was Tristan Gebbia, who looked uniquely comfortable for a freshman in the fish bowl. Gebbia ended up playing for both Red and White, throwing for a combined 28-for-45 for 268 yards and a touchdown.

But his poise and confidence level had folks saying, “One day, that’s the guy.”

This is the deepest collection of raw quarterback talent that NU has had in years and years. If you’re looking for a starting point for optimism, this is it.

OK, so it was the spring game. And the defense wasn’t allowed to touch the quarterbacks. In terms of scheme, it was a vanilla kind of day.

That’s OK. There’s too much talk about scheme with Nebraska football.

Yes, talent is needed and more seems to be coming in all the time. But the issues that ail Dear Ol’ Nebraska U have to do with execution and passion.

Blocking. Tackling. Catching. Throwing with accuracy. Playmaking. And showing up for the big moments. All the moments.

These are the things that will enable NU to catch Wisconsin and Iowa on the way to the bigger fish in the Big Ten. With double emphasis on blocking.

If this is a make-or-break year for Riley, it has to do with avoiding getting blown out, looking overmatched and unprepared to play. Solving the execution and passion problems will help them do that.

Maybe the answer is more leadership. Maybe better players, more Riley players do that. Maybe new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco lights that fire and never puts it out.

Can the quarterbacks help there? They must.

There’s not a lot of star power on offense, not a lot of obvious playmakers. This 2017 offense looks like a group effort where running backs, tight ends and slot receivers will have to pitch in. Especially if Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El get double-teamed for lack of respect elsewhere.

It will be the job of Lee, or whoever, to get the right person the ball and move the chains. Execution. First downs. Confidence. And so forth.

Now, can they get from the red zone to the end zone? The line and running game looked decent on Saturday. This is something to watch going into the fall. NU won’t win a lot of games with field goals.

“I really like this team,” Riley said. “This team has the makings of a good team. It needs growth.”

Which is what you’d expect in year three. Or is it year one?

It’s both, in some ways. And while it shouldn’t be viewed as a make-or-break season, Riley has his defensive guy and quarterbacks of choice. The feeling is, now it’s on. Let’s see what you got.

On Saturday, there was a lot to like. And it was mutual.

“I’ve never signed that many autographs,” Lee said. “It was a lot of fun. I’m glad I’m here.”

Outside the stadium, Gebbia was stopped by a crowd of kids, asking for him to sign programs and their shirts. One kid asked his mom, “Who was that?”

“It’s No. 14,” the mom said. “That’s all you need to know.”

We’ll know more soon enough. So far signs and arrows are positive.