Huskers’ QB Tanner Lee challenged to turn hype into reality
LINCOLN, Neb. — Tanner Lee hasn’t taken a snap in a game for Nebraska, yet the fan base has already deemed him the quarterback who can return the Cornhuskers to national relevance.
The hype has been fueled by the words of a couple former NFL personnel men, one of whom predicted the transfer from Tulane would be a top NFL draft prospect.
Lee’s statistics in his two years with the Green Wave, however, would not indicate immediate success in the Big Ten.
Coach Mike Riley on Monday cautioned against putting too heavy a load on the junior from New Orleans.
“I don’t want to be that guy that says, ‘Give the ball to the quarterback and go win the game for us,’” Riley said. “It’s going to take our team. Our line has to do a great job, our running game has to be good, receivers have to make plays. All the parts have to work together for the quarterback to be good. This isn’t going to be just about how he plays. It’s going to be how all those parts around him play.”
Lee was the scout team’s most valuable player on offense during his transfer year, and beat out Patrick O’Brien for the starter’s job in spring practice. He’s earned good reviews for his work through practices leading to the Huskers’ opener against Arkansas State on Saturday night.
“I’m extremely ready, extremely excited,” Lee said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been out there in live action. I miss that. Just thinking back on where I was when I ended my career at Tulane and not knowing where I was going to be, and to be in the position I’m in now, I feel extremely humbled and lucky and blessed for that.”
Lee was a two-star prospect coming out of high school and redshirted his first year at Tulane. He started 19 games over two seasons, completed 54 percent of his passes and threw for 23 touchdowns against 21 interceptions. Curtis Johnson was fired after the 2015 season, and Lee was not a fit for new coach Willie Fritz spread-option offense.
Nebraska welcomed Lee. Former NFL general manager Billy Devaney, the Huskers’ executive director of player personnel, had heard about him from Archie Manning, the former New Orleans Saints QB, father of Peyton and Eli and executive director of the Manning Passing Academy.
Devaney said in February that Archie told him after the 2015 session of the academy that Lee outperformed California’s Jared Goff, who went on to become the 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick.
“We have a boy here that put him to shame,” Devaney quoted Archie as saying. “There is a boy down at Tulane named Tanner Lee. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I know how Goff throws, and you are saying Tanner Lee throws the ball better? Archie said, ‘There was no comparison. You have to keep your eye on this boy from Tulane.’ “
More praise was heaped on Lee earlier this month by Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who tweeted, “After seeing … QB Tanner Lee spin it yesterday, he will be a top NFL prospect for ‘18 or ‘19. Size, arm talent, intangibles.”
Savage, a former NFL general manager and an assistant to Riley in 1991 in the old World League of American Football, made the observation after visiting a practice.
Lee has quickly garnered the respect of his teammates, who voted him a team captain last week.
“Just how he comes off as a person,” offensive lineman Jerald Foster said. “He believes in you, he believes in himself and he understands what needs to be done. With all those things rolled into one person, it was that much easier for us to accept him as the leader that he is for our team. Not only is he a good leader, he’s a great player and he does exactly what’s needed on the field. I can’t wait for him to showcase himself in this first game.”
No one is more eager to get started than Lee.
“I think Coach Riley has given me an unbelievable opportunity to come here,” Lee said. “I want to do everything I can with that opportunity. It is the next chapter in my career and I’m extremely lucky to be here playing at a school like this with its tradition. It’s not something I take for granted, ever. Something I continually think on is what am I going to do with this opportunity, and it keeps me motivated.”