LINCOLN — Zac Taylor knows the practice. The former Nebraska quarterback and Big 12 offensive player of the year remembers when former coach Bill Callahan stripped his quarterbacks of their green “hands off” jerseys and let the defense take its licks.
This was spring 2005, and Taylor, who’d recently arrived from junior college, was one of five Huskers trying to win the starting job. Incumbent Joe Dailey was in the group, as were Jordan Adams, Beau Davis and Joe Ganz. Taylor didn’t know his teammates that well. On day one of practice, he didn’t know where on the field he should take quarterback/center exchanges.
“There’s that nervous energy,” Taylor said.
But Taylor had a plan to win the job. He wanted to be coachable and prepared and make good decisions. And then Taylor added another element taught to him by his dad. When it matters: Be tough.
And that practice — April 9, 2005 — afforded Taylor the chance to show off that toughness. During one stretch that afternoon, he completed six straight passes, two of them for touchdowns. Perhaps more important: Jay Moore busted up Taylor’s lip on a sack. That was a badge of honor worth more than a completion.
In a quarterback race, Taylor said, little things matter. Arm strength is good. Athleticism is too. But toughness counts.
“You have to find ways to prove you’re the guy — coachability, toughness, decision-making,” said Taylor, now an assistant coach with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. “Those are three things you can control as a player and those are the three things I tried to start with when I came in.
“You can’t just go around yelling at people. You’ve got to earn it through toughness and through your work ethic.”
Taylor won the job that spring, beating out Dailey, who then transferred to North Carolina. Taylor never missed a start — a half, even — over the next two seasons.
Since then, Nebraska has had several quarterback battles. In 2007, Sam Keller and Ganz went toe to toe; Keller won, but Ganz proved to be the better long-term quarterback. In 2009, Zac Lee essentially won the job by default when Patrick Witt transferred out before spring practice. In 2010, while Lee was recovering from elbow surgery, Taylor Martinez and Cody Green dueled; Martinez dramatically won the starting job just a few weeks before the season opener. Since then, there hasn’t been much of a doubt. Martinez was the clear starter heading into the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons, while Tommy Armstrong was the No. 1 guy headed into 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Junior Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, then, are conducting Nebraska’s first true quarterback race of the school’s Big Ten era. Coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf are their judges. And the criteria on which Langsdorf will determine the winner are a little different from how he gauged the success of Armstrong, a run-better, pass-poorer quarterback better suited for the spread run offense Nebraska once ran.
Langsdorf wants completions. A lot of them. He wants his quarterbacks hitting the back foot of their drop and knowing where to throw the ball and how to get it there on time and with accuracy. Riley’s offense is based on pass route combinations going in enough directions that giving receivers a chance to run after the catch is crucial.
The lower the completion rate, the fewer chances receivers have to make defenders miss tackles or wear themselves out trying to make tackles — the fewer chances Riley’s pass game can build on the previous play, stacking concepts on top of each to get a defense off balance. When Riley’s offenses are humming, they churn out first downs with regularity, ranking in the nation’s top quarter in first downs per game.
Nebraska’s offense last season ranked 76th nationally in that category. Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe — two fifth-year seniors — combined to complete 50.3 percent of their passes. In Riley’s last four years at Oregon State, Beaver quarterbacks — mostly Sean Mannion — completed an average of 64.9 percent of their passes.
When told of the gap, Langsdorf said he wasn’t surprised.
“It showed in practice,” he said. “We were pretty much (50 percent) in practice last year.”
It carried over to games.
“You can’t just hang it all on the quarterback — but a lot of it’s on the quarterback,” Langsdorf said of NU’s passing struggles. “That’s all there is to it. And the other thing about it is, when we had open throws, and they had the intent of the play, they either didn’t throw it to them or complete the ball. That was a problem. That happened too often.”
Memories of the recent past tend to inform the immediate future. So when Langsdorf says “accuracy” will be a major determining factor in who wins between Lee and O’Brien, keep in mind: Based on last season, a better completion rate is non-negotiable.
Hence, early in spring practice, there are many check-downs to running backs, who were often ignored as receiving options since Nebraska switched to the spread run attack in 2010. Langsdorf wants the ball off the ground.
“Movin’ the chains, completions, getting us into the right run, getting us out of a bad pressure look,” Langsdorf said. “It’s movin’ the ball. Movin’ that ball down the field.”
Lee and O’Brien, to this point, are completing around “73, 74 percent” of their passes, Langsdorf said. On Saturday, Lee led the first offense, while O’Brien led the second. Both, with a few exceptions, were very sharp. Lee and O’Brien both found tight ends and running backs underneath the defense but also challenged the middle of the field on intermediate routes, especially to slot receivers. Few balls hit the ground. The practice hummed in a way few of Riley’s previous practices had.
“They’ve looked good the whole time,” Riley said Saturday. “It’s been a really good week watching them assimilate what we’re doing.”
So, if they’re both accurate, what become the deciding factors? To some degree, physical components — arm strength, quickness of release — would be important. In terms of sheer game experience, Lee has 19 starts at Tulane. O’Brien doesn’t.
“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.”
But Taylor, who started his career at Wake Forest before transferring to Butler County (Kan.) Community College and later Nebraska, pointed to some key intangibles that helped him, in a new offense, claim the top spot on the depth chart. Taylor, who coached quarterbacks for the Miami Dolphins for four seasons before serving as offensive coordinator for Cincinnati’s college team in 2016, has also seen the competition from the other side, as an evaluator.
» Watch, Taylor said, for the guy who’s the most prepared. The guy who asks for the play scripts a day early so he can practice saying the names of the plays. The guy who takes the best notes in the film room.
“So when they show up the next morning, they’re ready to go — they’re confident in what they’re about to do,” Taylor said. “And you see some guys who rely on their talent. They show up and they can’t spit out the play in a huddle. You can tell they didn’t spend the time the night before — and maybe it’s only an hour the night before — learning the plays.”
» Since quarterbacks tend to get some undeserved credit, Taylor said it’s equally important to take blame even when it might not be the quarterback at fault. Some quarterbacks, Taylor said, never figure out how important that is.
“It’s part of the position,” Taylor said. “There’s been some great quarterbacks who are great finger pointers, but if you’re not one of those top-tier guys, it’s important that players know you’ll take one on the chin for them. That makes them want to play for you.”
» And there’s that toughness quotient. The willingness to stay in the pocket and deliver a pass under heavy rush. The ability to take a hit. Resolve under adversity.
In Taylor’s experience, the guys who haven’t had every physical advantage sometimes have an intangible one. Because it was hard — Taylor didn’t have the strongest arm, and he wasn’t 6-foot-4 like Lee or O’Brien — he had to be that much better in the other areas. Knowing Callahan’s offense. Leading his teammates.
“I’ve seen a lot of talented quarterbacks who never had a chance because they never really gave themselves a chance,” Taylor said. “They were too good too early and they could always get by with talent and they never had to work. Some of the guys who played with a chip on their shoulder, some of the time, those are the guys who are the most successful because they put in the extra work. I always played with that edge.”
He’d advise any Husker competing for the job now to do the same — because whoever wins the job, whenever he wins it, still has a lot to learn. Taylor credited Callahan with keeping him grounded.
Callahan wasted no time in doing so, either. After Taylor enjoyed a sparkling spring game — completing 20 of 27 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns — Callahan grabbed Taylor walking off the field. Told him — you played well, but this journey is just beginning. For Taylor, it’d end in 2006, with one of the best seasons in Husker quarterback history.
“He got me before it could all go to my head,” Taylor said. “Before the press conference, before people go around town and know who you are. I’m glad he did that for me. He was right. I had so much further to go.”
Even when Lee or O’Brien wins the job, they’ll still have to win games.