Everybody in the Nebraska football program figured Tanner Lee had big plays waiting in that right arm of his.
The redshirt junior has the talent and the arm strength to generate his share of additions to the Huskers’ highlight reel.
The bigger question entering his Saturday night debut, it seemed, was about everything else.
How would Lee do all the little things that quarterbacks are asked to do? How would he perform in pressure situations, or when a play didn’t unfold just the way it’s drawn up in Danny Langsdorf’s meeting room?
Lee answered those questions affirmatively in Week 1, more often than not making the right play — if not always an explosive one. The Red Wolves are not Ohio State, but the Destrehan, Louisiana, native passed his first test.
“I think he got rid of the ball in some dire situations,” Langsdorf said. “He might not make a guy miss scrambling around, but the ball comes out, so he’s not getting sacked. He knows where to go with the ball, he’s very good on checking the ball down.
"I thought he did all that stuff tonight really well.”
Those decisions on third down and under duress — especially after forcing his first attempt in the face of pressure — are hallmarks of good quarterback play. More impressive, though, is that he did it despite having not seen live game action since November 2015.
“We had an emphasis this week on getting the ball out quick, and that’s something I tried to focus on,” Lee said. “Being able to make plays quick, before the pressure gets in, I think that’s something we handled at times.”
Lee’s overall numbers — 19-of-32, 232 yards, two touchdowns, 59 percent completions — were good, but not eye-popping. His efficiency rose on third downs, when he completed 7-of-11 for 93 yards and a touchdown, helping the Huskers convert 7-of-14 on the night.
Those situations showed Lee’s willingness to take an easy first down, like a 9-yard slant to redshirt freshman JD Spielman on third-and-4 in the third quarter, but also to push the ball down the field. He made accurate throws to Stanley Morgan for 26 yards on a third-and-5 corner route in the second quarter and to JD Spielman on a third-and-5 vertical for 35 yards early in the fourth.
“He was really good,” Langsdorf said. “He missed a fade to Stan, kind of pushed it outside, didn’t really give him a chance inbounds, but I thought he was really solid. Good first game for him. Played smart, got us in some good situations callwise. I think really overall, pleased.”
The deep ball to Morgan was well out of reach midway through the third quarter, and he threw high across the middle for Spielman — a bad place to miss — in the fourth. Cornerback Blaise Taylor and linebacker Kyle Wilson each disrupted Lee’s timing on effective third-down blitzes. In both instances, NU looked in position to convert with a completion.
“For me, the offensive part of it, there was a lot of good stuff, but I’m kind of to the point where I think we should score every time, so maybe I’m not a very good judge to talk about it,” Riley said.
Added Langsdorf, “We had a couple of run-throughs that were bad that gave up big hits on the quarterback, which we can’t have. A little bit of that was the protection unit, which includes the tight ends and the backs, so it’s not all the line. It was a decent start and we’ve got a lot to build on.”
The throw Lee likely wants back most: A third-and-4 incompletion with 4:26 remaining. The Huskers' defense had just recorded a safety and the offense took the field with 5:46 to go and a 14-point lead. Instead of putting together a drive, though, NU went three-and-out and used just 1:26. Lee threw high for Spielman on the left sideline on third down, though the redshirt freshman was not really open. The replay did not reveal a surefire alternate, though Bryant may have been able to earn a first down from the flat.
“I think some of the quicker stuff he actually missed more than he has through fall camp, but I thought overall he was very good,” Langsdorf said.
Lee made throws to several areas of the field and showed he could deliver on-platform or off. He didn’t turn the ball over despite playing for the first time in 22 months. NU hopes it won’t need him to be perfect in order to win games, but early returns suggest the program is in good hands under center.
“When he didn’t have something, particularly late, he took good care of the football and didn’t make a mistake with it,” Riley said. “For his first game back in a while, I thought he was excellent.”