When head coach Mike Riley held his weekly Monday morning press conference, he was peppered with questions about his quarterback. Riley didn’t shy away from them, and he acknowledged that his signal caller is struggling right now.
Tanner Lee, the junior transfer from Tulane, had a nation-leading nine interceptions through four games. Three of them have been returned for touchdowns by the opponent, all in the last two weeks. Riley’s last quarterback threw just eight all of last season. Riley said the most important thing that Lee needs to improve on as the Huskers (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) look towards a Friday night game with Illinois is “obviously, choices.”
“You asked No. 1 thing, it’s choices with the football, the other thing that he can do is don’t make a bad play worse,” Riley said. “I think that when a guy wants to make a play and frankly when we’re not doing as well as we want to, then you tend to force things.”
Riley said there have been times this season where a play has broken down or a primary receiver has been covered up or a coverage has changed, where Lee has tried to make something out of nothing, like Tommy Armstrong Jr. did last season. Unlike Armstrong, however, Lee doesn’t have the ability to tuck and run – or at least he hasn’t shown it – and instead has relied on his arm. Riley wants to see more balls thrown away. Live to fight another down, or as Riley puts it, “don’t make it worse.”
Riley did say, though, that it’s not all on Lee. He made “one dramatic error” on the pick-six in the third quarter, but for the most part, the protection Saturday was better. Riley said that has been a key issue this season.
“We’ve got to be very mindful of the protection and the routes that we put into the game and prepare him best for the choices that he can make and for the defenses he’s going to see and where the ball should go,” Riley said. “Through all the years, we’ve had quarterbacks have these issues, for sure, and the best thing to do is not necessarily simplify but really condense and get down to the choices at hand and when you have a look, make a throw.
“We’ve had probably too many situations where he has been disrupted with protection, not necessarily sacked, but disrupted and caused the ball to be bad so we’ve got to help him in some ways.”
Another issue, as Riley sees it, is a lack of effectiveness when they do throw the ball. He hinted at condensing the playbook last week, but this week stressed that they need to help Lee with the types of routes that are being run. With the running game clicking against Rutgers (197 total yards), the pass sagged (26 attempts for 109 yards).
“The issues we have, we have to balance out our offense now the other way. We don’t necessarily have to have more attempts, we just have to be more effective in all parts of the passing game,” Riley said. “We did pretty well on third down the other day [8-for-17] and we did well on both sides of the ball, but it’s just going to be important to us to get better overall in the passing game.”
As for a potential quarterback change – something that has become somewhat of a hot topic with Lee’s struggles, the boos that followed Lee’s second interception against Rutgers and the cry for redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien to see time – don’t expect one soon. After the game Saturday, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said there’s a clear difference between Lee and O’Brien in practice. Riley said more of the same Monday.
“We did a physical evaluation and a mental one throughout spring and fall camp and felt like he won the job,” Riley said. “For those reasons, both his experience and his ability and his ability to learn, he is our best opportunity to play well.”
Still, up to this point, the door to O’Brien has been shut and locked. Riley might have at least unlocked it after Saturday’s performance.
“We, however, like to keep the door open for competition as it goes,” he said.
Other news and notes
>> The Huskers’ injury list is, again, lengthy.
Linebacker Marcus Newby missed the Rutgers game with a hamstring injury and will miss the Illinois game on Friday as well. Center Cole Conrad, who missed his first game on Saturday too, is questionable for Friday.
Riley said tailback Tre Bryant, wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. and right tackle David Knevel are all making progress towards returns and will be looked at as the week progresses. Wide receiver Bryan Reimers is also battling a hamstring injury and Riley said it’s “going to be slow going this week” for him.
Tackle Matt Farniok, who filled in for Knevel before breaking a bone in his wrist against Northern Illinois, is making progress and will be “maybe able to do some stuff” during practice Monday evening. Riley joked that Farniok has been fitted with a club over his cast that makes it so he “can’t hold. That might be a bonus.”
As for safety Joshua Kalu, who left during the Oregon game and has yet to return despite suiting up for the last two contests, Riley at first said Kalu would miss Friday’s game, but later seemed to allude to there being a chance he could return.
“We would like to say day-to-day but I’d say our most hopeful thought is week-to-week,” Riley said. “If he is indeed out, which, I think he is unless something’s different in the next couple of days, then I’m hopeful for next Monday.”
Riley also said he hasn’t yet had any new conversations with corner Chris Jones, who has yet to play this season due to a torn meniscus, because he has yet to be medically cleared.
“I think that when that time might come, that he might be healthy to play, then we’ve got something to talk about,” Riley said.
>> Both center Michael Decker and tackle Brenden Jaimes impressed Riley in their first career starts against Rutgers. Riley praised Decker’s intelligence and “how analytical he was on the sideline with information.”
For Jaimes, who became just the fifth true freshman to start on the offensive line for Nebraska, it’s been a culmination of practice paying off.
“We recognized this kid’s ability and kind of his unfazed mentality of playing with our team when we started camp, it was impressive,” Riley said. “We noticed him right away as being different. That’s why we kept him, even though we didn’t expect him to be active, that’s why we kept him on the travel squad, kept him working with the varsity. “
>> With a shorter week to work with – a Friday game rather than a typical Saturday one – the Huskers are condensing their practice schedule early to try and keep things somewhat familiar later in the week.
Riley said the team met Sunday to review the Rutgers game and get in a workout to “just get the previous game out of them,” and Monday’s practice will get “squished” together with some normal down-and-distance work as well as some third-down work. Riley said Monday’s practice will also run longer than usual to allow the coaches time to get in everything they need to work on.
“This is our day four practice today,” he said.
>> After Saturday’s game, Riley said the coaching staff would give a closer look at going back to a committee approach at running back. Junior Devine Ozigbo had an unexpected 100-yard game and starter Mikale Wilbon tallied 79 of his own yards on 14 carries. Riley said those conversations took place Sunday night and early Monday morning and, should Bryant not be ready to go against Illinois, the rest of the backs will get an even distribution of carries.
“I think, if everything is the same – if Tre is not involved in this at this time – we’ll probably start Mikale and play those guys pretty evenly this week,” Riley said.
That could also include freshman Jaylin Bradley who made his season debut in the backfield – he had been working primarily on the kickoff squad before that – against Rutgers with six carries for 18 yards.
>> As a whole, the offensive line impressed Riley following a rough showing against Northern Illinois.
“I was impressed with the mentality of that group,” he said. “That group stayed pretty quiet all week and I really didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know if that meant ‘wow, these guys are beat,’ or they’re going to come out fighting. They came out fighting.”
>> With questions on the offense still heading into week five, the defense is sorting itself out and Riley has been excited by the results.
“We played a lot of good defense and it was nice to see after the first series, we had a pretty good identity,” he said. “The rushing defense was outstanding, I think they had 68 yards, 194 total. Their longest run of the game was  yards, their longest pass was 19 and then they’re 3-of-12 on third down, they had 12 first downs. It’s hard to win with those kinds of stats.”
Riley said linebacker Luke Gifford had “one of his very best football games as a Husker.” He was pleased with the play of inside backers Dedrick Young II and Chris Weber and called defensive end Carlos Davis a “physical force, both in playing the run and rushing the quarterback.” He liked the improvement of corner Lamar Jackson and said safety Antonio Reed, who has been filling in for Kalu despite a thumb injury, has been gaining confidence and looking better with each passing game.
“As we get healthier and everything else stays stable we’ll get better, we’ll have more options with how to use people in the defense,” Riley said. “I’m excited about the growth.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.