CHICAGO – What do Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, two high NFL draft picks and franchise faces, Dak Prescott, the NFL’s new golden boy, Bryce Petty, Bo Wallace and a couple other high-profile college football quarterbacks all have in common?
Back in 2014, they were all out-played by a freshman kid from Tulane.
“Who is this kid,” wondered Steve Calhoun, a quarterback guru who runs the “Armed and Dangerous Football Camp,” as he watched from the sidelines at the 19th annual Manning Passing Academy.
“Some of the local coaches from around New Orleans let me know who he was,” Calhoun said. “I was a big fan of him because that was the year Mariota was at the Manning camp and Jameis Winston and all those guys and he actually out-threw all those guys. He was very impressive.”
That was three years ago, and a lot has changed since. Tanner Lee, that freshman with the rocket arm firing passes all over the field at John L. Guidry Stadium, is now at Nebraska, hoping to breathe new life into his career and reinvigorate a team clamoring for Big Ten success.
When Tanner Lee announced his decision to transfer from Tulane to Nebraska after the 2015 season, he was sitting on just a tick above 3,600 career yards and almost as many interceptions (21) as touchdowns (23). In 19 games as a starter at Tulane, Lee was 5-14.
On the numbers alone, it might be hard to find a cause for the ever-growing hype surrounding the 6-foot-4 quarterback from New Orleans. But it’s there, and you don’t really have to dig too far beneath the surface to find it. Just ask anyone Lee has come into contact with. He was loved at Tulane, Calhoun said, and he’s won over his new teammates as well.
“His entry has been impressive just in the simple fact that he became a good teammate, became immediately well-liked and, through time, became very well-respected,” Mike Riley, Lee’s new head coach said. “He entered in not really a dramatic fashion. (He) just became one of the guys.”
Lee became a guy who was elected by his teammates to serve as a captain during the Huskers’ offseason conditioning program. A guy who was selected as one of three student athletes to represent Nebraska at Big Ten Media Days. A guy who still has yet to throw an actual pass for the Huskers.
“You can really tell that people gravitate to him,” Calhoun said. “Just a normal person. He doesn’t have a big ego. You would never think he’s a starting quarterback at the University of Nebraska.”
And when you ask Lee’s teammates about him? Be prepared to listen for a while.
“He’s just a cool guy,” senior linebacker Chris Weber said. “He’s fun to hang out with. We went and saw Wrigley Field last night and just got to hang out. I think guys just gravitate towards him and for a quarterback you want that, you want the leader of your team to be your quarterback and be a guy that can pull other guys with him and I think that’s one of the great qualities about him”
The charisma and the genuine way Lee carries himself helped to win over his teammates. His desire to just get to work earned their respect. Ask him about his role as a leader on the team, and his presence as a team representative in Chicago, and he’ll deflect to his teammates. Ask about expectations of him, and he talks about wanting to work harder for his team. Ask about his year on the scout team, he shifts the attention to the recently departed 2016 class.
During that 2016 season, when Lee was forced to sit out due to NCAA transfer restrictions and limited to the scout team, he went all in.
“There was no drama to it,” Riley said. “His attitude was great, he went to work, he found the best way he could to help the team. There’s no story there because there’s nothing he ever created except for going to practice every day.”
But make no mistake, it was tough not being able to play.
“For you to have to sit out a full year and not be able to go into battle with your teammates that you’ve been grinding with and practicing with day after day, and you don’t get a chance to participate and help them get those wins,” Calhoun said, “I think it just makes you hungrier and appreciate the game more.”
And instead of looking at the season as a lost year, Lee chose to view it as something more.
“I think every week I was still preparing with the quarterbacks like I was going to play and taking notes like I would any other year,” he said. “I still have those notes to go back on.”
Lee’s game still has room for improvement. As with any quarterback, Calhoun said he needs to improve his evasiveness in the pocket, his ability to create space with just the slightest of movements. For his part, Lee has worked on exactly that since arriving at Nebraska, trying to fine-tune his game at every point.
For the better part of eight years, Nebraska faithful have seen mobile quarterbacks that can not only make plays with their arm but electrify with their feet. Lee represents a departure from the Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Taylor Martinez mold, a prototypical passer with limited mobility outside the tackles (even though he says he can run, he just chooses not to). Lee will look different, but his game represents a seamless marriage.
Nebraska needed a quarterback. Lee needed to find the right scheme.
“It’s unbelievable that this is where I ended up,” he said. “This is a great opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Calhoun says one of Lee’s greatest strengths is his control as a passer.
“He always looks like he’s in control, he really understands his body and he’s never off-balance,” Calhoun said. “I’m not sure how much of the playbook Nebraska showed in the spring game, but the little bit that they did show, he looked like he was in complete control and knew where everybody was, knew all the checks, all the protections and all that stuff.”
While Lee’s numbers don’t jump off the page, they should be taken with a grain of salt.
At Tulane, he was battered and bruised week in and week out (42 sacks in 19 games), facing constant pressure and never really finding a groove. But Lee expressed confidence in the Nebraska offensive line, saying he has to help them as much as they help him. He’ll also have a group of receivers on the outside – De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr. to name two – fully capable of making big plays when he needs them too. And he’ll have a defense that understands its role in letting him ease into things.
At Media Days, Riley raved about the importance of Lee entering into his career at Nebraska with live-game experience under his belt. It’s what gives Riley confidence in his quarterback and, in turn, in his team heading into a season facing lower-than-usual expectations.
And Calhoun, the guy that’s watched Lee go through this whole transition, is expecting big things.
“I think he could be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.”