Following his third pick-six of the season in the third quarter against Rutgers, Tanner Lee returned to the field amid a smattering of boos.
Where was the man hyped up before the season as a potential day-one draft pick? Where was the gun-slinger who was tabbed as a break-out performer candidate this season? Where was the smart decision-maker, the guy with the rocket arm and pin-point accuracy?
Well, don’t look now, but since returning to the field to the sound of boos Lee has pretty much been that guy. In the last three-and-a-half games, Lee has completed 63 of his 109 passes for 869 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception (albeit another pick-six, his fourth).
Project those numbers over the course of a full-game season and you get 2,979 yards, a 59.4 completion rate, 8.2 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns and less than four interceptions.
Over the last three games, 37 of Lee’s passes have fallen incomplete. Eight of them have been drops, meaning 68.1 percent of his passes over that span should have been caught (and that doesn’t even account for intentional throw-aways, something Lee has done more recently to his benefit). Even the one interception seemed to be a miscommunication between Lee and his intended receiver Devine Ozigbo, who didn’t get turned around in time to catch a screen pass, more than a bad play by Lee himself.
Nebraska has plenty of issues to fix right now, but quarterback play is no longer one of them.
“We’ve helped him a hair in protection,” Coach Mike Riley said about Lee’s recent play. “We’ve done a better job — I bet in that span of time there hasn’t been a lot of sacks. That doesn’t mean it’s all been perfect — he’s avoided some stuff, had some good throw-aways — but we have done a little better job of that. I think it’s settling down a little bit, probably.”
In the first three games, Nebraska allowed seven sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. In the last four weeks, the Huskers have given up just three sacks and 10 hurries.
Riley is correct that it hasn’t just been better play by the offensive line. Nebraska is still allowing some pressure; the difference is Lee has been handling it much better. Early in the season, Lee struggled to sense pressure and many of his interceptions were a direct result of trying to still make a throw as he was getting hit. Lately, Lee has navigated the pocket much better, sensing pressure and avoiding it.
In hindsight, it probably was not realistic to expect Lee to hit the ground running and be a star from game one. He went 644 days between starts — almost two full years without playing in a real football game. Lee showed his talent in camp and practice situations where pressure is nonexistent. Over the last few weeks, he’s grown accustomed to being hit again and has settled into the offense after a year running other team’s plays on the scout team.
“Him just playing again, getting to play more,” Riley said. “I think that what you’ve seen since Rutgers is what you’ll see continually from Tanner Lee. I think he’s a good player and I think we have to help him. We have to run when we have run and since that time he’s been better, we’ve been better.”
In Nebraska’s blowout loss to the Buckeyes, Lee completed 60.5 percent of his passes for a season-high 303 yards (8.0 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns against a defense that features a fierce defensive line and a top-50 pass defense nationally. However, he didn’t get much help from the ground game and the Huskers struggled to consistently move the ball as a result.
“It was really, really hard, difficult in every circumstance against Ohio State,” Riley said. “You’re getting beat badly and you’re throwing too much and he’s still making some good plays, so I was impressed with that. We’re just going to keep going with him and always keep in mind protections, always keep in mind good outlets for him to get rid of the football.”
As well as Lee has played individually the last three weeks, Nebraska has only scored 28 (against a bad Illinois team), 17 and 14 points in those games. The blocking and pass-catching groups need to take a big step forward, and if they can do that, Riley still sees more upside with Lee as he continues to gain confidence and comfort in the system.
“One of our jobs in that way is to help him more and more with really the confidence of what to do in every passing situation,” Riley said. “I think that there is absolute growth in the ability to know, and how fast you can do it, go one-two-three. Instead of thinking about game plan all the time, backup to progression reading, getting the ball out. He’s got tools, right, and so what we need is him to have great confidence in what we’re doing. So whatever we can amp up for him that way this week I think will be really good for him.”
Riley stuck with Lee through the early-season struggles and that decision has started to pay off. Now it’s time for Riley, Langsdorf and the rest of the Huskers to step their games up and get the most out of their quarterback.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.