LINCOLN — Junior Tanner Lee on Wednesday became Nebraska’s starting quarterback heading into the summer, but his journey to winning the job began shortly after he arrived from Tulane.
Lee started two seasons for the Green Wave before transferring to NU. And yet, coach Mike Riley said, Lee “didn’t put himself on a pedestal.” He blended in and made friends. The transition was “seamless because of Tanner’s maturity.” Though Lee had to sit out last season because of NCAA rules, Riley knew he’d made a wise choice to pursue Lee on the transfer market.
“He’s a magnet,” Riley said in an interview Wednesday before announcing on Twitter that Lee had won the job over redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. “He’s really well-respected. People look up to him. He’s not a guy who has to give speeches. People just gravitate to him.”
So did Husker fans after the 22-year-old Lee’s 190-yard, three-touchdown performance in the spring game, which seemed to cement the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Louisianan’s edge over O’Brien. Lee said afterward he’d never signed so many autographs. What’s more, he’d never played in front of a crowd so big that was rooting for him.
The 6-4, 230-pound O’Brien will be Lee’s backup.
“Patrick had a great spring,” Riley said. “He competed like crazy. I’m really proud of him. The best thing would be if Patrick takes this and understands he’s one play away from playing in the games. He’s going to be ready. He’s going to compete.”
Riley said Wednesday he’s “not naïve” to the fact that some quarterbacks, when they’re not named the starter, choose to transfer, but he didn’t expect O’Brien to do so. In a brief appearance on the Husker Sports Network Wednesday night, Riley said “for sure Patrick was disappointed.”
“All part of God’s plan,” O’Brien tweeted Wednesday evening.
Nebraska’s coaches — including Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf — “debated and talked” Monday and Tuesday, Riley said, as to who should start and whether Nebraska should anoint that guy so quickly after spring drills. Riley said NU’s offense will benefit from Lee’s leadership during summer conditioning workouts and in August practice. Lee was named one of 11 “Husker Way” captains during winter conditioning despite a lack of game experience at Nebraska.
Riley’s most recent quarterback decision involved a 2013 battle between Oregon State’s Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz. In that battle, Riley waited until five days before OSU’s season opener to name Mannion the starter.
“It probably caused more angst than was necessary,” Riley said. “I really don’t want to go down on the road.”
Later, in his radio appearance, Riley said he didn’t want to start fall camp with a quarterback competition being the main story.
“The story is out right now,” Riley said. “Everybody can sit on it — including our team and quarterbacks. And we can prepare and basically enter fall camp without any drama at that position.”
Lee appeared to have the edge throughout spring practice. In his first of three chats with the media in March, Lee said his experience at Tulane would provide him with an edge.
“Drills and film study can’t really teach experience, and I think having that experience helps me in all facets of football, on and off the field,” Lee said at the time.
But Riley and Langsdorf praised both players in equal measure and flipped a coin — even in the spring game — to see which quarterback would take the first snaps with the offense. O’Brien won the spring game coin toss. But, with one perfect 30-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver JD Spielman, Lee stole the spotlight.
“I’d like them a little easier where they’re a little bit more open, but sometimes you’ve got to make a play,” Lee said after the game.
He made several such throws in spring drills and, according to coaches and teammates, several last season as scout team quarterback. He won scout team MVP honors as a result. Lee’s quick release, strong arm and accuracy were chief among his talents, Langsdorf said, when Lee started 19 games over two seasons at Tulane.
“He puts the ball on the money,” Langsdorf said in December. “And I think anybody who does that, they (receivers) like it, because they trust the ball’s going to be right there.”
Husker defenders Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry — now preparing for the NFL — were impressed by Lee’s intangibles in December.
“He wants to be a leader — you can tell by the effort he puts into the locker room,” Gerry said. “Older guys, we see those things. And the younger guys are starting to see it, too. We’ll be able to leave this place knowing things are in good hands.”
“Boy, he’s just Joe Cool back there,” Banderas said. “He’s not jumpy. He’s been there, done that. He’s just sitting back there. And what I really like about him is people like him. People like him. He’s got an ability — when things go wrong or the scout team’s messing up — he’s got the ability to bring the guys in, calm them down and set them right. He’s just smooth. Fit in with anybody.”
Riley said Lee’s transition to Nebraska reminds him of former Oregon State quarterback Matt Moore, who started for two seasons after transferring from UCLA. Moore has played for a decade and started 28 games in the NFL.
“He could have come in as that big L.A. guy who was a hotshot, but he was a regular guy,” Riley said. “He was a magnet. Tanner entered in the same way.”
Riley sees the same traits growing in O’Brien — just three semesters removed from high school — and true freshman Tristan Gebbia, who enrolled early at NU this spring and quickly impressed coaches with his grasp of the game.
“For three guys to go into a spring game and make it look like football — all of them had moments — that’s a pretty good picture of our quarterback situation today,” Riley said. “I like the big picture.”