Nebraska's offensive line, run game key to Tanner Lee meeting high expectations
Expectations for Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee are already ridiculously high.
Look back at the Red-White game in April and it’s easy to see why the former Tulane gunslinger has created a stir in Lincoln. Lee completed 13-of-19 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns in his “soft” debut at Memorial Stadium.
But it was this pass, a 30-yard scoring strike to J.D. Spielman, that really got Husker Nation buzzing:
— Omaha Sports Insider (@OSIsports) April 15, 2017
I’m guessing fans could watch that pass on loop over the next 50 days until the season finally kicks off.
Most walked away from the afternoon believing that Lee had closed the book on Nebraska’s quarterback battle. It was confirmed a few days later, when Mike Riley publicly announced that Lee would be No. 1 on the depth chart headed into fall camp. His first showing left a strong impression on the nearly 80,000 in attendance.
This past spring wasn’t the first time that Lee had raised some eyebrows, though. And the Husker fan base isn’t the only group he’s impressed. The New Orleans native has earned high praise from some of the best quarterback evaluators in the business.
After attending the Manning Passing Academy while still at Tulane, Archie Manning regarded Lee as the best quarterback of the bunch, which included Cal’s Jared Goff. As Sean Callahan reported at Huskers Online Manning told Nebraska’s Billy Devaney that Lee “put [Goff] to shame…there was no comparison.”
While at Tulane, Lee’s numbers sure wouldn’t rival Goff’s. In 19 starts between 2014 and 2015, he threw for 3,601 yards, 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions while completing 54 percent of his passes. Injuries and a lack of high level talent were contributors to those unflattering numbers.
Still, to say he put the No. 1 pick in 2016 NFL Draft to shame seems a little far-fetched, even coming from Manning. But the legendary Saints’ quarterback wasn’t the only one buying into Lee’s stock.
Just last month, Lee received big compliments from quarterback guru and ESPN personality George Whitfield.
“He’s one of those rare guys that you don’t have to spend any time on throwing mechanics,” Whitfield told the Omaha World Herald. “He’s one of the purest passers I’ve been around. He’s still working on things – like touch – but in terms of throwing the ball, he’s teaching tape for youngsters.”
Endorsements from well-respected talent evaluators are great for the preseason hoopla. And after watching Lee perform back in April, it’s hard not to believe the comments from Manning and Whitfield are genuine. But can Lee really be as good as advertised?
Your expectation level for Lee may depend on whether or not you believe Riley and the Huskers finally have all the pieces in place to run an effective pro-style offense. Because, believe it or not, the quarterback is going to need some help.
As a pocket passer, Lee is certainly the type of quarterback that can flourish in Riley’s system. That alone is a pretty big change. There hasn’t been a true pocket passer in Lincoln since the pre-Taylor Martinez days. Having a guy under center with more patience and can work through his progressions is going to be a better fit in this scheme.
Lee’s ability to hit his targets on deep and midrange routes should allow Nebraska add in some new wrinkles to its offense, too.
That’s the good news.
The bad news?
Nebraska has a ton of question marks looming on the offensive side of the ball.
Maybe the biggest area of concern heading into next season is the offensive line. A lot of the issues up front last season were hidden by the legs of Tommy Armstrong, Jr. Nebraska allowed just 15 sacks last year, the fewest in the B1G. But a struggling offensive line was bailed out multiple times by Armstrong and his innate ability to elude pass-rushers and either turn up field or get the ball out of his hands.
While Lee does have some crafty footwork, he’s going to be at the mercy of his line. That’s something Riley emphasized this spring.
“We have to be aware of allowing the quarterback to succeed,” he said in March. “The line has to do a nice job.”
The Huskers also need to be more effective running the football in 2017. After passing so frequently in 2015, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf did make a concerted effort to be more efficient on the ground last year. Nebraska still ranked ninth in the B1G in rushing yardage though, averaging 169.2 yards per game.
Riley believes that improving in that area is also essential for Lee to be successful.
“We’ve got to do a better job of establishing an identity in the running game,” Riley said. “If you’re going to have a quarterback who isn’t a primary runner like Tommy was you better have a draw game, screen game, a quick game. You better have some stuff that helps the line.”
What Riley is saying is true. The question is, though, can Nebraska improve drastically in those areas and take some of the pressure off Lee? Who knows the type of quarterback Armstrong could’ve been if he wasn’t asked to be a do-it-all type of player.
As good as Lee is as a passer, he doesn’t have the same athleticism as Armstrong. the junior is at his best when he has time to operate in the pocket and check down his progressions. If he’s asked to shoulder most of the weight like his predecessor, the year probably won’t have a bright outlook for Lee or the Huskers.
If that weren’t enough, Nebraska is going through a wide receiver overhaul this year. Gone are seasoned veterans like Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. Lee has some solid options in Stanley Morgan, Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El, but after that, the options are a bit of a toss-up. J.D. Spielman could have an increased role and Tyjon Lindsey might be an immediate impact player, but the experience is somewhat limited.
That didn’t appear to matter in the spring game but it could be an issue when the season arrives.
Quite a bit to overcome, right?
From a passing standpoint, Lee has every tool in the box. He’s the type of quarterback that can thrive in a pro-style offense and win games in the B1G. He brings a completely different package than Martinez or Armstrong. For Nebraska – and this offense – that’s a good thing.
But there are a lot of hurdles the Huskers need to clear. Most of those are out of Lee’s control.
If Nebraska can correct some of its issues and improve on the offensive line, the Tanner Lee that Manning and Whitfield were raving about might flourish this fall.