By Randy York, The N-Sider
Even though Nebraska Football Coach Mike Riley seems to be in no hurry to name the Huskers’ starting quarterback for the 2017 season, that doesn’t stop the media from reaching their own conclusions about who will succeed Tommie Armstrong Jr. following his four-year run in that highly scrutinized position.
If junior Tanner Lee (No. 13) "isn’t named the starter sometime soon, it will shock a lot of folks who follow the program closely,” Lincoln Journal Star columnist Steve Sipple wrote about Lee, a starting quarterback at Tulane University before moving to Nebraska and honing his skill sets this past year as a redshirt.
“This is the deepest collection of raw quarterback talent that NU has had in years and years,” wrote Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel, referring to three more talented quarterback recruits on the Huskers' 2017-18 roster – redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien, first-year freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
“It’s not easy to live up to all the hype, but through 15 spring practices, Tanner Lee did exactly that,” wrote Sean Callahan, publisher of Rivals.com.
Lee is the obvious leader among the media, but 78,312 fans saw positive performances from all four gifted quarterbacks Saturday. Lee completed 13 of 19 passes for 190 yards and three touchdowns, including a 30-yard perfect spiral to freshman receiver JD Spielman, igniting the Red Team to a 14-0 lead in a lopsided game that ended 55-7.
A coin flip enabled O’Brien to start for the winning Red Team, and he finished the day completing 11 of 17 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Gebbia also played well against the No. 1 defense, completing nine of 15 passes and scoring the White Team’s only touchdown on a four-yard run.
For the Spring Game, four Nebraska quarterbacks completed 62 of 95 passes for 693 yards and five touchdowns, and get this – 25 different receivers caught passes for the two teams.
Tristin Gebbia Completed 28 of 45 Passes for 268 Yards and a Touchdown
For the day, Gebbia (No. 14) completed 28-of-45 passes for 268 yards and one score. He went 19-for-30 for 213 yards but threw one interception as the White Team quarterback. He also completed 9-of-15 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown as a member of the Red Team.
Bunch moved the White Team effectively, completing 10-of-14 passes for 101 yards.
A veteran, Lee had fun, felt comfortable and was savvy enough to answer a question about becoming a starter. “That’s not up to me, but I can just keep trying to play well,” Lee said, unconcerned about who and when the starting quarterback will be named. “Coach Riley’s been around this game a long time, and I know he knows what’s best for our team, and I trust that.”
The offense is not where Lee or his coaches want or expect it to be. “I think we had a really great spring, have a lot of things to build on and have a lot of our offense in,” Lee said. “I think we’ve laid the foundation to build, and I’m excited for that.”
Asked about his relationship with O’Brien, Lee said: “We can make each other better. I think we understand that. I really think we are focused on what’s best for the entire team. It’s really not about Patrick and I. It’s about who’s going to move the ball. I think we have four guys who can move our team.”
O’Brien performed well. “I executed the offense the best I could, and I thought it was at a high level,” he said. “Putting on pads and playing in front of a lot of people is not something I’m really used too. It was a good experience, and I thought I played well. I thought I got the job done. All of us as a quarterback unit, I thought we performed well. It was a good job all around.”
Feeling like he’s done his job and controlled what he can, O’Brien is eager “to go out there and perform the best I could every single day, and if that means I’m going to be the starting quarterback, that means it,” he said. “If it doesn’t, obviously I’m going to be disappointed, but I just have to control what I can control.”
O’Brien’s Spring Game Break: Calling 'Heads' in Locker Room to Start at QB
To control the first opportunity to get on the field for the Red Team, O’Brien (No. 12) called “heads” in a coin toss in the locker room, and it elevated his start.
Gebbia “grew up a lot, going against the No. 1 defense,” O’Brien said. “He did a great job. I was very impressed with him. He’s a hard worker, and I know he’s in the film room studying all the time. I knew he was going to be prepared for today.”
O’Brien also supports Lee. “We’re teammates first,” he said. “We’re going to be supportive in each other in everything we do. Every single time either of us threw a touchdown, we were the first people to give each other a high-five. Tanner’s a great guy. He’s a great quarterback. It’s just making us both better. We’re competitors, and we’re good people. We’ve got a good relationship.”
Who knows? The solidarity of that positive, team-first relationship might define why both would be comfortable in not knowing who starts until later. “I’m comfortable with it going into the fall,” O’Brien said. “Whatever the coaches feel necessary, it’s up to them. It’s not my decision, but either way I’m just going to keep working hard.”
Whoever earns the No. 1 honor at quarterback will inherit significant talent. Like other candidates, O’Brien would love to throw strikes to Stanley Morgan Jr., and De'Mornay Pierson-El, plus the likes of Tyler Hoppes, Bryan Reimers and Gabe Rahn. "I feel like I’ve got a good connection with every guy,” O’Brien said. “I just have to keep it rolling and then develop more in the fall.”
Success is a journey and O’Brien understands the odds. “I need to improve in all aspects of playing quarterback,” he said. “I have to work on my footwork. I have to work on my accuracy. I have to work on everything. There's always room to get better, and I just have to keep improving every day.”
Moment of Silence Honored Veterans and Football Letterwinners
Before Saturday’s Spring Game started, Nebraska Athletics honored 13 NU letterwinners and two coaches who died in 2016. Their respective names were scrolled in memoriam on the HuskerVision screens prior to the National Anthem, which featured more than 100 members of a barbershop chorus.
During the National Anthem,180 military volunteers unveiled a football field-sized American flag, stretching from the east to the west side and covering Tom Osborne Field from sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone.
Husker letterwinners who died in 2016 include:
John Bell, #66, Middle Guard (Anaheim, Calif.) Letterwinner 1972-73 May 17, 1951 – March 2016
Joe Blahak, #27, Cornerback (Columbus, Neb.) Letterwinner 1970-71-72 August 29, 1950 – April 25, 2016
Todd Carpenter, #73, Offensive Tackle (Grand Island, Neb.) Letterwinner 1985 March 8, 1964 – December 11, 2016
Mark Doak, #71, Offensive Tackle (Whittier, Calif.) Letterwinner 1972-73-74 July 3, 1951 – February 29, 2016
Ron Drakulich, #41, Defensive Tackle (Omaha, Neb.) Letterwinner 1968-69 March 17, 1947 – April 29, 2016
Richard Fischer, #60, Halfback (Valentine, Neb.) Letterwinner in football in 1936 (also on the track team) November 6, 1913 – March 13, 2016
Sam Foltz, #27, Punter (Grand Island, Neb.) Letterwinner 2013-14-15-16 January 21, 1994 – July 23, 2016
Dean Gissler, #97, Defensive Tackle (Central City, Neb.) Letterwinner 73-74-75 November 11, 1952 – February 23, 2016
Brian Miller, #35, Linebacker (Hardy, Neb.) Letterwinner 1988 August 22, 1965 – January 14, 2017
Lawrence Phillips, #1, I-Back (West Covina, Calif.) Letterwinner 1993-94-95 May 12, 1975 – January 13, 2016
Lyle Sittler, #52, Center (Crete, Neb.) Letterwinner 1962-63-64 October 24, 1942 – January 29, 2017
Maynard Smidt, #22, Halfback (Cozad, Neb.) Letterwinner 1963-64 December 5, 1938 – October 22, 2016
Antony Steels, #33, Wingback (Sacramento, Calif.) Letterwinner 1979-80-81 January 8, 1959 – March 3, 2017
Milt Tenopir, Assistant Football Coach, 1974-2002 (Harvard, Neb.) – March 6, 1940 - September 26, 2016
Bill Glassford, Head Football Coach,1949-55 (Lancaster, Ohio) – March 8, 1914 - September 19, 2016
Send a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org (Please include city, state)
Follow Randy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/RandyYorkNsider