LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska head coach Mike Riley is fully aware of the implications.
If he has redshirt junior Tanner Lee take the first snap at Nebraska’s opening spring football practice Saturday, people will think he’s the starter, or at least in the lead to be. If redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien gets the first snap, there would be an identical reaction.
That’s why the decision on who will be the first quarterback to drop back to pass with the first team when spring practice begins will come down to chance.
Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will simply flip a coin.
“We’re going to try to give Tanner and Patrick even turns,” Riley said. “On all the positions, at this time of year, who goes first, at any position, it really doesn’t matter to me. And I try to pass that on to the players. Somebody’s got to take the first snap. But what’s going to be determined as to who is playing in the game will happen over a long period of time. Our job is to create opportunity.”
Lee threw for 3,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in two seasons at Tulane in 2014 and 2015. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes and transferred to Nebraska in the summer of 2016.
At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Lee fits the frame of the pro-style quarterback that Riley and Langsdorf like. He also has the experience, which Riley calls a “bonus.”
O’Brien is a redshirt freshman from San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback traveled with the team last year but did not play. Retaining O’Brien’s redshirt was a main goal last year, which even created a bit of controversy late in the season when Nebraska’s starting quarterback and backup were both injured.
Regardless, O’Brien’s redshirt was retained, and he will have four years of eligibility. His main advantage over Lee, Riley said, is being around the program day in and day out last season while Lee was on the scout team.
Riley called O’Brien “a nice young player.”
In terms of the offense, Riley isn’t concerned about both quarterbacks having to learn anything new this spring. Last season in scrimmages on Sundays, Riley said both O’Brien and Lee picked up the offense well. They know the plays and the cadence. Now it’s just about who performs better this spring.
Riley was also quick to mention that O’Brien was just as productive as Lee in those scrimmages.
Whether the starter is Lee or O’Brien, Nebraska’s quarterback position will be drastically different from the past eight years with Tommy Armstrong and Taylor Martinez.
Nebraska leaned on the running ability of Martinez and Armstrong to get out of tricky situations. Nebraska was last in the Big Ten last year in giving up sacks, partially because of Armstrong’s elusiveness. Nebraska also drew up run plays for the quarterback.
Lee and O’Brien aren’t runners, though Riley said if either can pick up 7 yards from time to time he wouldn’t mind.
But the lack of a dual-threat quarterback also means the offensive line will have to undergo some changes, which could also change some play calls.
“We have to have things that help the line, that will then help the quarterback,” Riley said. “If you have a quarterback that’s not going to be a primary runner like Tommy was, then you better have a draw game, a screen game, you better have a quick (pass) game. You better have some stuff that helps the line. And those things do.”
Riley is also excited about having four quarterbacks on the roster, with walk-on Andrew Bunch and true freshman Tristan Gebbia behind Lee and O’Brien.
With Lee and O’Brien battling for first string, Gebbia and Bunch will get some good repetitions and development at the bottom of the depth chart. Riley said that’s important.
The main focus, though, will be on Lee and O’Brien. There’s a chance a starter could be named soon. There’s a chance the decision could wait until the day of the first game in September.
“I’m probably going to do it later than sooner,” Riley said. “I’m not really worried about it at this point. My biggest concern is making sure they both get a chance to compete and play.”
The main considerations for who will be eventually named the starter will come down to growth, development and overall production.
“That’s always challenging, fun and a big part of the formation of the team,” Riley said. “This spring practice, they’re always important. Always big. This is where there are vital parts of the development of a team. But this carries a little bit more juice, for sure.”