LINCOLN — Patrick O’Brien had been on the Nebraska campus for only a few weeks when he met Tanner Lee, and before long O’Brien learned that Lee intended to become a Husker.
O’Brien studied up on the former Tulane quarterback. Immediately he was impressed. And accepted what was ahead.
That led to what is happening now, with O’Brien and Lee using early spring practices to see if one can poke his nose in front of the other as NU looks for its 2017 starting quarterback.
“I mean, competition makes the best out of everyone,” O’Brien said Thursday. “So he’s only going to make me better. I feel like I’m going to make him better. It’s just going to benefit both of us.”
If Lee hadn’t transferred in, O’Brien could have come out of his redshirt season with a clearer path to the No. 1 job after the Huskers lost Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe.
But if O’Brien were the type to duck a challenge, he might not have picked Nebraska in the first place nearly two years ago. The Huskers already had a commitment from four-star prospect Terry Wilson, who would flip a few months later to Oregon.
“You’re going to come to college and there’s going to be competition anywhere you go,” O’Brien said. “Guys are going to be coming in and out whenever. So you just got to be the best quarterback you can be — and just worry about yourself almost — and just try to get better every single day.”
Even though Lee has the benefit of 19 career starts and is considered by some to be the favorite, O’Brien is conceding nothing.
There are 12 more spring practices, then the month of August. NU head coach Mike Riley has said he wants to give Lee and O’Brien even shots, with no hurry to name a starter.
And when offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf talks about efficiency and accuracy and limiting mistakes, O’Brien knows the drill. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt freshman completed 74.3 percent of his passes as a senior at San Juan Hills High in San Juan Capistrano, California.
“Every single route that we have in our playbook, you can always find somewhere to throw the ball,” O’Brien said. “Someone’s always going to be open. It’s just finding that right guy every single time, and making the throw, and just being accurate with it every single time. And you’re going to have a good completion percentage after it.”
Nebraska didn’t have one a year ago, hitting just 50.3 percent of its passes to rank No. 123 nationally. O’Brien studied behind Armstrong and Fyfe, splitting time between the NU offense as it prepared for games and the scout team that was preparing the Husker defense.
He ended up sticking with the offense after injuries to Armstrong and Fyfe, which led coaches to bring Zack Darlington back to quarterback from receiver.
That practice time helped with O’Brien’s development, as did some snaps in Sunday scrimmages with redshirts and underclassmen. A regular spot on the travel roster gave him a taste of the road.
And because O’Brien was an early enrollee in 2016, he’s in his second spring at Nebraska. Langsdorf saw some of that experience and comfort at work Thursday.
“I’m impressed with his ability to throw the ball,” Langsdorf said. “And he’s smart. He got us into some good protections and some better runs than we were originally in today.”
O’Brien has said in the past that he modeled his game to some degree after Andrew Luck, who played for Stanford and then the Indianapolis Colts. O’Brien previously talked about being smart with the football, not making mistakes and controlling the clock — exact things that Langsdorf mentioned Thursday.
Nebraska was the first to offer O’Brien in the spring of 2015, and he picked the Huskers over Colorado, Colorado State and UNLV. Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 7 pro-style quarterback and No. 175 overall prospect nationally, and he would go on to throw for 2,895 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior.
“I know his high school coach real well, and he had a lot of good things to say that I could trust,” Langsdorf said. “And he’s shown that here.”
Nebraska won’t feature the same quarterback run threat without Armstrong, but O’Brien did exceed 600 rushing yards each of his final two seasons at San Juan Hills.
“He’s not probably gonna be a real dynamic runner by any means, but he’s a good athlete enough to move in the pocket and maybe take off and get a few yards,” Langsdorf said.
In signs of Nebraska’s offensive evolution, Darlington moved from quarterback to receiver last spring and AJ Bush left the program in August. O’Brien and Lee are now joined by freshman Tristan Gebbia and junior-college transfer Andrew Bunch, a walk-on.
But the battle is between the two returnees, and Langsdorf said every single thing is being charted and analyzed. As a competitor, O’Brien said, you embrace it.
“It’s kind of cool to see where you’re at every single time, and how you ranked up against the other guys, too,” O’Brien said. “It’s nice just to know, like, what your completion percentage for a practice was, which is good.”