Days before Nebraska’s season opener against Arkansas State, Tanner Lee said he couldn’t wait to take his first hit after nearly 22 months without playing.
Through two games, Huskers offensive coaches wish the redshirt junior quarterback wasn’t taking contact quite as often as he is.
The numbers aren’t terrible — Lee’s been sacked four times and hit four other times, according to official stats — but the collective thought is that NU should be protecting Lee better.
“Not good enough, obviously,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said when asked about allowing three sacks and two hits at Oregon. “We gave up too many hits on the quarterback and three sacks, so we’ve got to get a lot better there.”
“Some good, some bad,” observed offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. “It was inconsistent. I just think we’re getting hit too many times. Part of the protection is making sure the backs and tight ends are doing their part in their role, whether it’s a blitzing linebacker or chipping an end on their way out. The quarterback’s got to get rid of the ball. It’s a whole protection unit.”
Sound protection begins with communicating along the front line. Communication begins with junior center Cole Conrad, a Fremont native who is playing the position for the first time after starting five games at right tackle in 2016.
“It’s huge, but you have to have communication whether you’re a center, tackle or guard,” Conrad said. “Definitely at center you’ve got to see some more things, what they’re doing. You’ve got to be the general out there. You’ve got to be the guy that’s pointing everything out and redirecting the line calls and things like that.”
Even with a first-time center and redshirt freshman Matt Farniok making his debut against the Ducks, junior left guard Jerald Foster thought the unit communicated well at Autzen Stadium.
“I feel like we were able to talk, able to figure each other out,” he said. “I think we did a great job with it.”
Indeed, the Huskers appeared caught off-guard only rarely against Oregon’s 3-4 defense. Oftentimes, as Conrad points out, it’s a team effort.
“I’ve got a lot of help behind me,” he said. “Tanner does a great job if he’s seeing something. My line, too. … They all do a great job of pointing things out and just helping me, making it a little easier, for sure.”
A perfect example came on Lee’s third-quarter touchdown pass to junior Stanley Morgan. Left tackle Nick Gates and Foster both signaled to Lee when the Ducks showed pressure to the offense’s left. When the corner crashed down before the snap, Conrad also pointed him out to help Lee. Oregon brought four men off the side and seven total, but blew the coverage and left nobody with Morgan. Even with the wide open receiver, though, Lee may not have had time to get rid of the ball if running back Mikale Wilbon hadn’t abandoned a run fake and dove to at least partially impede a free-rushing defensive tackle.
“Cole starts (the communication), and then it’s got to get echoed down whether it’s pass pro or run,” Cavanaugh said. “You’ll see a lot of hand signals going on and different things.”
Identifying and solving rushes on the fly is not easy, but Conrad said he thinks he’s starting to get the hang of it.
“It’s slowed down for sure,” he said. “Start of fall camp, it was kind of spinning at times, but it’s definitely slowing down.”
It hasn’t been all pretty, though.
The Huskers got lucky when Oregon outside linebacker Justin Hollins went right between Gates and Foster in the fourth quarter, sacking Lee and knocking the ball free. Gates moved outside and Foster saw Hollins late, though Gates alertly fell on the loose ball to keep NU’s final scoring drive alive.
The offense was not as fortunate on the final drive. Tight end Tyler Hoppes had a tough assignment, coming across the formation to his right to block Ducks outside linebacker Jonah Moi. Hoppes got there in time but was pushed back into Lee. Moi hit Lee’s arm on the release, the ball fluttered and was intercepted.
“It’s hard, but that’s what we’re doing,” Cavanaugh said flatly of Hoppes’ assignment.
Pass protection, as Langsdorf said, has many components. Lee often had a clean pocket to work with on play-action passes, thanks in part to a productive running game. As the game drew late and NU trailed, Oregon's front had more success making him uncomfortable. Lee was 4-of-13 passing in the final quarter with two turnovers.
Overall, Cavanaugh graded his unit’s performance as “just average.”
“Protecting Tanner is everybody’s job,” said head coach Mike Riley. “There are line calls that are made, there’s recognition by the backs, and sometimes the tight ends are involved. Everybody has to do their job. And it’s not easy. You’re going to see all the stuff so you’ve got to be good at it. The quarterback has to make a quick decision a lot of times.
“We’ve done OK, but we can be better.”