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Thursday, April 9, 2009
Lee's diligence helping him blossom in Nebraska offense

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

LINCOLN, Neb. -- When teaching his West Coast offense, Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson tests his players on a rapid-fire basis nearly every day.

Armed with a magic marker and a grease board, Nebraska quarterbacks are expected to be able to draw up an offensive formation and then explain the nuances of the call as soon as Watson barks out a play.

 
  AP Photo/Dave Weaver
  Zac Lee appears to have gained the early lead in the race to become Nebraska's starting QB.

It's taken some time, but Zac Lee is gradually feeling more comfortable with this rote-and-scribble learning method favored by his coach.

"I've spent a bunch of time with him, just drawing up plays," Lee said. "He would yell something out and then I would draw it up. He's helped me a lot."

There's more to becoming a quarterback than squiggly lines and snap counts, but Watson has been pleased with what he's seen in Lee so far this spring in his bid to become Nebraska's starter.

"He's really, really confident right now," Watson told the Lincoln Journal Star. "I think the confidence comes from experience. He's been in the system. He knows the terminology."

Like the other quarterbacks battling for the job, Lee has had little real experience in directing the Cornhuskers' offensive attack. Since transferring into the Nebraska program from City College of San Francisco in January 2007, Lee has thrown two passes in game action.

But Watson likes what he sees so far -- particularly when he measures Lee of today against the skills he exhibited earlier in his Nebraska career.

"You can tell he's a totally different guy right now. When he first came here -- I think he would tell you this -- I don't know if he blew things off, but he didn't quite understand how much you had to work. Then he found out and put forth the work."

Lee and the other potential Nebraska quarterbacks are facing the challenge of Joe Ganz, a seldom-used player early in his career who blossomed over his final 16 games as a starter to become one of Nebraska's most productive passing quarterback in history.

Ganz brought an endearing chutzpah to his role as starter that made him one of the most popular players in recent Nebraska history. His legacy is immense after he threw for a school-record 3,568 passing yards last season in Nebraska's 9-4 record. The Cornhuskers earned a share of the North Division championship and capped the season with a dramatic comeback victory over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

Coming off the bowl game, the battle for Nebraska's starting job was expected to be a tight one. Patrick Witt was presumed to have a slight advantage after getting playing time in the Gator Bowl victory over Clemson when Ganz was injured for several plays.

And the arrival of heralded incoming freshman Cody Green was expected to make competition that much closer.

But Witt decided to transfer before spring practice started and Green was idled for several critical early practices with a hip injury. Those factors appears to have provided a clear path for Lee into the starting lineup -- at least heading into the Cornhuskers' April 18 spring game.

"I can't look at it like that because it's not good for either me or the team if I think that way," Lee said. "I still have to look at it as competition. There are still three other guys who are out there interested in the starting job. And how it's played out hasn't changed my demeanor at all."

Ganz's development under Watson gave Lee a primer in how to wait his turn for his own playing time.

"Joe just told me to keep my head down and do your work and what people ask of you and they have a way of working out," Lee said. "That's how you have to look at it. You have to try to keep competing and getting better and in the end, hopefully everything will work out the way you want it to."

Achievement runs strongly in Lee's family. His father, Bob, was a 14-year NFL veteran who was a member of three teams that made Super Bowl trips.

Later, his father was an athletic director at the University of Pacific. His son still remembers blowout losses in 1994-95 for his dad's old school at Nebraska when he was growing up. And his sister, Jenna Lee, is an anchor on the Fox Business Network who frequently appears on the Fox News Network. Earlier, she played softball at California-Santa Barbara.

Lee's father hasn't offered him many suggestions over his athletic career, unless he asked.

"He's pretty good at just being a dad and helping me with father-son things," Lee said. "But when I've asked, he's always had some good answers for me because he's been in almost every situation imaginable."

Lee's father was most known for his football moxie and his leadership. He earned the nickname of "General Lee" when he led the Atlanta Falcons to the brink of the playoffs in 1973. And he showed those same skills when he directed Minnesota to a playoff berth four years later after Fran Tarkenton was injured earlier in the season.

"He's an open guy who can interact with a bunch of different people," Lee said about his father. "Hopefully, I have some of those qualities that come in handy in football and they can help me with that."

Observers already are marveling about Lee's athleticism at quarterback, particularly his breakaway speed. Some are saying he's the fastest player at the position for the Cornhuskers since the days of Jammal Lord.

"To tell you the truth, I was kind of surprised how fast he was," Nebraska I-back Quentin Castille said. "I was kind of intimidated and, actually, a little mad. I was like, 'You aren't surprised to be faster than me.' But Zac is pretty fast."

That athleticism could provide a critical element at his position that has been missing for the Cornhuskers in recent seasons. But Lee is more concerned about nailing down the starting job than worrying about how his skills will transform the Nebraska attack.

"I think it will come, but it's yet to be seen in how our offense will be determined," Lee said. "Hopefully, I can just bring something that might make us different in some way."

The lack of a clear starter is considered as the Cornhuskers' major liability heading into the season.

But much like he attacked learning Nebraska's offense in Watson's lessons, Lee is excited about earning his starting opportunity after his team's unexpected success last season.

"It's a good time to be around this program," Lee said. "We had a big bowl victory and I just would like to build on it. Hopefully, we can just keep things going the same way they are going now."