LINCOLN — Tanner Lee spent three years as a big-city quarterback playing at small-scale Tulane. Had the Green Wave not fired one head coach and hired another who likes to run an option offense, Lee may still be in New Orleans, his hometown, flashing his strong arm in muggy obscurity.
But Lee’s at Nebraska — where, after Saturday’s sparkling spring game performance, he appears to be the frontrunner for the starting job. His Red team rolled to a 55-7 victory. Lee threw three touchdowns. He didn’t veer close to an interception. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound passer had 78,312 eyes on him, in the best way.
“It’s the first time I’ve played in front of a big crowd that was on my side,” Lee joked. “Seriously. So it was a lot of fun. It felt comfortable.”
Lee and the rest of the Husker quarterbacks settled in like they were old pros. Because new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco chose to keep his 3-4 defense entirely under wraps — nary a snap in the formation coach Mike Riley wants to be his base scheme — quarterbacks were able to read the defenses and throw with minimal pressure.
“Vanilla day,” Riley said of the defense.
Lee, Patrick O’Brien, Tristan Gebbia and Andrew Bunch threw 95 total passes — against 40 runs. The quartet combined for 693 yards passing, five touchdowns and one interception.
But the statistic that may make Riley — and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf — happiest is the 65.2 percent completion rate.
“It just looked, when they had something, they made a throw and it was OK,” Riley said after the game, which featured two 20-minute quarters of running clock in the second half. “We probably had too many drops, otherwise it would have even looked better.”
O’Brien — who hit 11 of 17 passes for 134 yards and one touchdown — got the first snaps of the game with the Reds, made up mostly of starters, while the White team had mostly backups. He got the “start” based on a coin flip conducted by Langsdorf in the locker room.
“I called heads and I won it,” said O’Brien, a southern California native who sported a fresh Angels baseball hat in the press conference.
His first drive led to a field goal. So did Lee’s. The White team took a brief 7-6 lead with a 12-play, 75-yard drive under the direction of Gebbia, a true freshman early enrollee who impressed coaches and reporters during spring camp and did the same on Saturday.
Slated for a redshirt so he can gain weight on his slender frame, Gebbia rifled passes quickly to tight ends and backs. Most freshmen trot onto a college stage like young deer and encounter headlights. Not Gebbia, who completed 28 of 45 passes for 268 yards. He threw the game’s one interception to outside linebacker Luke Gifford, who was trailing receiver Keyshawn Johnson Jr. on a pass route. Gebbia’s best play may have been an expert read of a blitz that led to a quick dump-off pass before the pass rush could find him.
“He’s a heckuva young quarterback,” Riley said.
“He never stops asking questions, he’s picking my brain about everything, and I knew he was going to play well today,” Lee said. “I was telling him that. And I’m really glad he did. His first time out there in front of the fans, he’s so capable of making those throws.”
As is Lee, who connected on 13 of 19 passes, none better than a 30-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver JD Spielman. Lee dropped the ball between a safety and corner as Spielman broke free. The pass had mustard and accuracy. Spielman, running a corner route, caught it in stride just before he went out of bounds.
The crowd noticed, audibly.
“I’d like for them a little easier where they’re a little bit more open, but sometimes you’ve got to make a play,” Lee said. Later, he made perhaps an even better throw, a cross-field laser just over the head of a defensive back to receiver Gabe Rahn, who caught it for a 21-yard gain. Lee threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Stoll and an 11-yard score to Tanner Hass, who caught another 11-yard touchdown from Gebbia to cap scoring for the Red team.
O’Brien successfully managed a first-half two-minute drill that culminated in a 9-yard touchdown pass to Mikale Wilbon, who was so open on a swing pass he jogged lightly into the end zone. O’Brien lamented a few tipped balls at the line of scrimmage, but otherwise thought he played well.
Riley didn’t tip his hand once during the spring about which of the two quarterbacks he preferred. Lee, perceived to have the edge because of his previous starting experience at Tulane, traded turns with O’Brien throughout the 15 practices. Teammates have praised both equally.
For the most part they’ve been pretty even, neck and neck,” offensive tackle Nick Gates said. “And I don’t know what decision Coach Langsdorf is going to make. They’ve definitely made it tough on him.”
Riley said he and his staff will discuss position battles next week. Quarterback, he said, will be “one of the talking points.”
But the coach has also hinted he wants to pick a starter soon.
Given that Nebraska’s run game remains a work in progress — although Riley liked what he saw Saturday, as top backs Tre Bryant, Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo combined for 110 yards on just 13 carries — and the Huskers are still developing depth at wideout and tight end, a leader at quarterback could help carry momentum into summer conditioning.
“I feel like I’ve done my job and I can control what I can control, you know?” O’Brien said. “I’ve just had to go out there and perform the best I could every single day.”
“I’ll continue approaching every day just like we’re in the middle of spring ball,” Lee said. “I’ve got finals coming up, so I’ll be focused on that. That’ll help.”
A college student looking forward to final exams. That may be a first. Lee experienced several other firsts on Saturday, too. The touchdowns. A big crowd on his side. The attention that comes with being at Nebraska and potentially being the guy who runs NU’s offense.
Smaller city. Much bigger scale.
“I’ve never signed that many autographs at one time, that’s for sure,” Lee said. “That was a lot of fun, meeting the fans and seeing how excited they are. It was a lot of fun. I’m glad I’m here.”