LINCOLN — When Tanner Lee takes the field at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, it will have more than one significant meaning for the junior quarterback.
The official start to his Nebraska career, yes. But also the end of an agonizingly long 651-day drought since the last time he played in a real football game.
His most recent memory was cradling his right hand after catching a finger — and breaking it — in the helmet of a defender as his Tulane team played on SMU’s Dallas campus in November 2015. Since then it’s been all workouts. Drills. Camps. Studying.
“I’m extremely ready, extremely excited,” Lee said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been out there in some live action and I miss that. I’ve been doing a lot of practicing the last couple years.”
With arms spread high and wide at his Monday press conference, Nebraska coach Mike Riley said
the “inventory” of information Lee and the Huskers have taken on since January is “vast.” Even more so with the installation of a new defense, breaking in a different quarterback and replacing so many longtime starters on both sides of the ball.
Then the coach brought his hands down and closer together. Now, finally, it’s time to focus and apply that knowledge specifically to facing a real opponent — in this case, the 7 p.m. Saturday home date with Arkansas State.
“There’s a lot of new things on the horizon,” Riley said. “We are excited and optimistic and feel good about all the preparation. Now we’ve got to go out and prove it week by week.”
Out of the big-picture abstract of spring workouts and fall camp, Nebraska has reached some concrete conclusions as an official kickoff looms.
The highlight Monday was awarding Blackshirts to 16 defenders before the afternoon practice. Those honored with the black practice jerseys were defensive linemen Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Freedom Akinmoladun and Mick Stoltenberg; linebackers Dedrick Young, Chris Weber, Alex Davis, Marcus Newby, Mohamed Barry and Luke Gifford; cornerbacks Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee and Dicaprio Bootle; and safeties Aaron Williams, Joshua Kalu and Antonio Reed.
The recognized defensive group consists of three seniors, six juniors, six sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Nebraska handed out 13 Blackshirts before the opener last season under then-defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
Riley announced other personnel decisions earlier Monday. He said, for example, at least four true freshmen will see the field this fall in wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey, linebacker Avery Roberts, running back Jaylin Bradley and nose tackle Deontre Thomas. Their classmates who will be “ready for action” and could play include quarterback Tristan Gebbia, offensive lineman Brenden Jaimes, nose tackle Damion Daniels and Guy Thomas.
Gebbia opens as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart. Riley said coaches will treat the Calabasas, California, product much like they did with Patrick O’Brien last year: planning for him to redshirt, but actively preparing for him to play in games.
Stoltenberg said game day will be a reward for a process that began last winter as he began transforming his body for the move to nose tackle by adding roughly 20 pounds. Now around 310-315, the junior from Gretna said he also feels mentally ready to go after spending the last eight months processing new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.
“It was a lot to learn, the whole new system,” Stoltenberg said. “But after going through the spring and fall, it’s kind of a lot slower now. The game has slowed down a little bit more (now) that we’ve had the chance to practice it a lot and work together as a unit.
“I guess the difference is the defense is more second nature, at least to me. It’s not just too much thinking about schemes and stuff like that as it is just reacting to the offense.”
Riley said the offseason allowed other roles to crystallize as well. Former walk-on Cole Conrad earned a scholarship and will be the team’s starting center as a junior. Three Huskers who have yet to appear in a college game — redshirt freshman JD Spielman and true freshmen Lindsey and Bradley — are listed, in that order, on the depth chart as kickoff returners.
The coach also singled out Gifford as someone playing the best football of his career thanks to a move to the “dog” (or field-side) outside linebacker spot in the 3-4. Time in the new system has also benefited Weber — a senior who Riley said has “found a whole new life” at inside linebacker — and sophomore Alex Davis at the “cat” (or boundary-side) outside LB spot, who had never played from a stand-up position.
Fall camp was “non-dramatic,” Riley said, and the spring was productive. The next step is proving it all means something.
“All the parts leading up to the season that way — the coaching, the enthusiasm for the work, the engagement of the team — that’s been at a high level,” Riley said. “Now we gotta go play and win games.”