Nebraska will start spring football practice on Saturday and Mike Riley will talk about starting spring football practice on Wednesday, so we’re officially in it. For the next six weeks in Nebraska, there will be football-like things to talk about.
And, while I think there are more important position battles this spring, the football-like thing that will be talked about the most will be the quarterbacks. It will always be the quarterbacks. Like how slightly artful movies about the magic of movies will always earn Oscar nominations, a quarterback battle will always be the A story here and the protagonist of that story will be Tulane transfer Tanner Lee.
If Nebraska had to play a game tomorrow, he would be the presumed starter based on experience alone. But there’s reportedly more than just experience at play here. Since the end of Nebraska’s regular season, Lee has been the subject of some effusive praise. That’s fine and good. You have to trust the people who have seen Lee up close because most Husker fans haven’t, but the question that persists here is this one: If Lee has all of the desirable quarterback tools, why were his Tulane stats so pedestrian?
Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star put that question to Eric Price, Lee’s offensive coordinator at Tulane:
Price had as close a view as anyone to what Lee has done as a college quarterback. His insights also suggests one shouldn’t get overly carried away with any opinions based off quick Google searches of his stats at Tulane.
Those stats in a snapshot: The 6-foot-4, 205-pound quarterback threw for 3,601 yards in 19 games, with a touchdown/interception ratio close to even (23 TDs/21 INTs) and a completion percentage of 53.6.
[. . .]
“We asked the quarterback to do everything, make all the calls. He had to be Drew Brees for us in order for us to be successful. He was just right out of high school, we threw him in there,” Price said. “We weren’t a very good team and we were playing against better talent at the time. A lot of his stats and the things that look bad on paper really weren’t his fault. He probably did the best he could under the circumstances. I think if we had someone else, he would have done a lot worse.”
Again, you just sort of have to trust that assessment, but it might prompt more questions than it answers. For example: Why was Tulane running an offense that required a Drew Brees-type to be successful? That’s not Lee’s fault, of course, so let’s look at those numbers a little more closely to see if that helps things make sense.
You can see Lee’s QBR for his two seasons at Tulane (19 starts) here, and we’ll focus on his sophomore season, a year when Lee’s completion percentage and overall rating dropped from his freshman season, but his interception rate improved.
Price was being honest — Tulane wasn’t very good that season and there were two ways that could’ve impacted Lee’s numbers. One, his receivers look pretty average. According to Football Study Hall’s count, the Green Wave’s receivers had a catch rate (receptions/targets) of 53.5 percent. For comparison, Nebraska’s receivers in 2015, catching balls from Tommy Armstrong Jr. in his first year in Mike Riley’s system, had a catch rate of 59.4 percent. A quarterback, of course, can impact catch rate too, but I’m comfortable saying that Lee will be working with more at wide receiver at Nebraska.
The bigger mitigating factor here, however, was probably the offensive line. Tulane’s line in 2015 had an adjusted sack rate that ranked 100th nationally according to Football Outsiders. (It was even worse when it came time to run block.) Lee isn’t the most mobile guy (career rushing yards: -287) and was sacked on 6.8 percent of his dropbacks in 2015. Jordy Joseph, more of a dual-threat quarterback who filled in for Lee when he was injured, was sacked 5.2 percent of the time. Compare that to 2.9 percent for Armstrong and 3.5 percent for Ryker Fyfe in 2015. This area right here — protecting Lee — is maybe the most pivotal in my mind for Nebraska in 2017, and it’s another one where I think it’s safe to assume an upgrade for Lee from his Tulane days.
So the question becomes if improved talent at wide receiver and offensive line are enough to accelerate Lee’s progress beyond the incremental gains that are more typical for a quarterback as he gains experience? We’ll start to find out soon enough, but this much seems clear: The expectations for Lee based on some sort of Nebraska bump.
Also clear: We really need to see Nebraska Lee because trying to completely understand Tulane Lee proves pretty difficult.
The Grab Bag
- Nebraska wore great uniforms last night, but didn’t play great in a 73-57 loss to Illinois. Here’s your game story, photos and quotes from Sunday.
- Nebraska baseball beat Utah yesterday to avoid going 0-4 over the weekend.
- Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy said the Cowboys didn’t face Ole Miss on a “level playing field” in the 2015 Sugar Bowl given recent allegations against the Rebels.
- A quick look at early 2017 Heisman odds.
Today’s Song of Today
And now a song from a movie that should’ve won something last night but didn’t.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.