Big 12: Bob Lee
Lee has been both booed and cheered by Nebraska fans throughout his first season as the Cornhuskers’ starting quarterback. During his early-season travails, Lee leaned on some guidance from his father, Bob, a 12-year veteran NFL quarterback who has seen the best and worst of times during his own professional career.
While he technically wasn’t “run out of a place,” his one-game demotion gave him an opportunity to clear his head and prepare for his second chance as a starter.
Since his return, he has provided solid leadership and production that has helped spark the Cornhuskers’ late five-game winning streak after starting the season 4-3. It’s helped them claim their first Big 12 North title since 2006, earning a berth in the Big 12 championship game against No. 3 Texas Saturday night.
Along with the rest of the team, Lee struggled in a 31-10 loss against Texas Tech that was their worst defeat of the season. And although he played better the following week, the offense struggled with eight turnovers in a stunning home loss to Iowa State.
That led to his benching against Baylor in the next game in favor of freshman quarterback Cody Green, who directed the win.
“There really wasn't much we could say to him," junior receiver Niles Paul told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "It's something he had to deal with, and he either was going to make it through or he wasn't.
"But that's just the type of person he is. He's a confident person. He patiently waited for another chance to get out there, and when he got out there he executed."
Green also got the start against Oklahoma, but struggled and was removed after producing no first downs over the first five possessions against the Sooners. Lee entered the game, directed the victory and has been the starter ever since.
“I never had any doubts I could produce when I got another chance,” Lee said. “The biggest thing has been that my teammates stayed with me the whole way.”
Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has tailored the offense to Lee’s specific strengths. It’s featured heavy doses of running by Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, play-action passes and occasional running from the quarterback that has picked up over the last several games.
Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said the changes have helped emphasize Lee’s strengths.
“He’s been effective in what they ask him to do,” Muschamp said. “They have changed philosophically to a certain degree in what they are doing. They have put him in a lot better situations are far as play action and pocket movement. He’s a good athlete and those things have helped him as much as anything philosophical in what they’ve done.”
Nebraska fans had a brief moment of anxiety last week against Colorado when Lee went with an ankle injury. Green took two snaps, but Lee had his ankle re-taped and returned on the next series and finished out the game. He said Tuesday his ankle felt “phenomenal.”
Lee’s passing statistics are down since his return, but his passing efficiency rating is up. Earlier this season, he posted three games of at least 200 yards passing and threw four touchdown passes against Arkansas State and three touchdown passes to lead the comeback against Missouri.
But in his last three games, Lee has not passed for more than 196 yards or thrown for more than a touchdown in any single game. It hasn’t really mattered because of the game results.
“We’ve had some relative success, but a lot of people have been caught up in the numbers,” Lee said. “But the reality is that we’ve been winning games.”
Lee will have to click as a “game manager,” as Watson has called him. It means the Cornhuskers need to stay ahead of the chains and can’t afford long down-and-distance situations where the Texas defense has been proficient at forcing turnovers, notching sacks and holding opponents to a conference-leading 28 percent third-down conversion rate.
“What those circumstances are going to be on Saturday night, you don’t know. It’s always ever-changing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We have to be ready to respond no matter what happens. If that means managing the game, great. But if that means we need Zac to throw four touchdown passes, let’s go.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It’s been the kind of early start that has Nebraska fans reminiscing about all the storied quarterbacks who have played for the Cornhuskers in the past.
Sure, there’s that Heisman Trophy winner named Eric Crouch, but he was more of a runner anyway. Tommie Frazier, all he did was run the option and win national championships.
|Bruce Thorson/US Presswire|
|Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee is starting his Cornhuskers career well.|
But as far as pure passers, there have been few to match new starter Zac Lee, whose deep arm has some pundits calling him Nebraska’s most accomplished pocket passer since Vince Ferragamo in the mid-1970s.
Lee leads the Big 12 in passing efficiency after two games and ranks seventh nationally. He’s thrown for 553 yards and six touchdowns in the kind of debut that the junior said he always expected once he received his starting opportunity.
“I’d like to say I have pretty high expectations for myself, so I feel like I’m pretty much right on track,” Lee said.
Nebraska’s new quarterback was the Cornhuskers’ biggest question coming into the season. And Lee, a junior who transferred into the Nebraska program in January 2007 from San Francisco City College, appears to have answered most of those early concerns with an unexpectedly quick start.
His early work was punctuated by a 340-yard, four-TD pass effort last week that sparked the Cornhuskers’ 38-9 triumph over Arkansas State. Most impressively, he distributed the ball to 11 different receivers while playing.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has been impressed with Lee’s early work, but not stunned.
“I think Zac is doing what we thought he was capable of doing,” Pelini said. “I’ve said all along that I have a tremendous amount of confidence in him. I think if you asked anybody associated with our team they feel the same way. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
But some are wondering how he will handle his first road game against a traditional power like Virginia Tech. The Hokies are 46-7-1 against nonconference teams at Lane Stadium since 1991, winning 31 straight nonleague games.
Despite those daunting odds, Lee is excited about his team’s opportunity heading into Saturday’s game.
"This is what college football is all about,” Lee said. “Going into places like that, a great atmosphere and just competing. That’s why this is fun.”
His coaches believe that Lee won’t wilt in the heightened competitive atmosphere.
“This dude is a cool customer, man,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson told reporters earlier this week. “He’s a ballplayer. None of that stuff is going to bother him. He’s a cool dude.”
Some of Watson’s confidence stems from Lee’s bloodlines. His father, Bob, was a quarterback in the NFL for 12 seasons and was active in developing his son’s talents.
That detail has produced a quarterback who appears impervious to some of the typical concerns that would worry coaches about many first-game starters on the road.
“He’s been raised by a professional football player and he gets it,” Watson said. “He understands it. He’s been around it his whole life. It’ll be nothing to him.”
But playing the Hokies will represent a step up after his first two games against FAU and Arkansas State.
“I’d imagine things might move a little faster,” Lee said. “You’ll probably have to be a little more precise with things overall. We need to be more precise and detailed because of the caliber of athletes and the coaching they have.”
Saturday’s game could be judged as a litmus test for the No. 19 Cornhuskers, who are still looking for a breakout victory that would grab national attention for Pelini’s program.
The Cornhuskers will bring in a six-game winning streak into Saturday’s game -- longest since winning 13 straight games in 2000-01.
A win over the Hokies would be a signal to the nation that Pelini’s team is getting closer to the levels of the Cornhuskers of old.
“This is a great opportunity for us, especially against a team like Virginia Tech that has had such long-term success,” Lee said. “I think this is something that we're really looking forward to.”
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."