The fall's most gripping quarterback battles. Part of the Doc's Big 12 Week.
• Typecasting. Reviled former coach Bill Callahan traded in the glorified tailbacks who had guided the vaunted 'Husker option to spectacular success for 25 years for a more conventional "pro-style" model circa 2004, and the results have been, you know, okay. After a truly disastrous effort by Joe Dailey in 2004, a series of pocket-bound white guys – Zac Taylor, Sam Keller and Joe Ganz – came on to drag the offense into the 21st Century. That trio combined to obliterate every Nebraska passing record with more than 13,000 yards and 103 touchdowns from 2005-08, and everyone hated it.
Former JUCO transfer Zac Lee was firmly in the "whitebread slinger" mold last year, but wound up slinging it a lot less – about 10 fewer times per game than Ganz or Keller in 2007-08 – as the nation's top scoring defense finally made it possible to win without 45 points from the offense. And the 'Huskers weren't about to get that from Lee: Nebraska finished next-to-last in the Big 12 in passing and total offense, averaged an anemic 18 points in Big 12 games, and memorably botched the Big 12 Championship Game despite holding the conference's highest-scoring offense to just 13 points, less than one-third of its season average.
That was one of three games the 'Huskers lost while holding opponents below 17 points, including an eight-turnover debacle in a 9-7 home loss to Iowa State. The old-school preseason hype as a Big 12 frontrunner and darkhorse national candidate still depends on a defense, even minus transcendent interior-line wrecking ball Ndamukong Suh. But there's no doubt that the next step in the "return to glory" timeline will require more consistent competence under center.
• The Incumbent. Lee was briefly benched after tossing three interceptions in the Iowa State game, but reemerged two weeks later in the win over Oklahoma (a 10-3 slugfest in which the game's only touchdown was set up by an interception returned to the Sooner one-yard line) and wound up starting the last five. He never looked very comfortable in the role against a remotely respectable defense, though, until a serviceable effort in the 33-0 Holiday Bowl rout over Arizona, which only required that he not give away the farm opposite one of the most devastating outings by any defense all season. Prior to that, if you take away his relatively big games against Sun Belt fodder in September, it was an ugly breaking-in.
It didn't help that Lee missed spring practice recovering from surgery on his throwing elbow, although technically any tinkering with the wiring can only be an improvement on the erratic form on display against Virginia Tech (36.7 percent completion rate), Missouri (42.4 percent), Oklahoma (55.6) and Texas (31.6) in the 'Huskers' biggest games. Lee's crucial advantage, of course, is that he's been through the fire in those games already. He even managed to win a couple of them while coming very close (one measly point vs. both Virginia Tech and Texas) to winning the others. He's not a killer, and he enters the season as by far the oldest, most battle-tested – i.e. the safest – of the candidates.
• The Young Gun. Cody Green showed up looking the part as an NFL-esque 6'4", 220-pound true freshman last spring, which quickly made him a clichéd fan favorite ("the most popular guy on the team is the backup quarterback...") as soon as Lee began to struggle. Significantly, Green led the 'Huskers to their only touchdown against Texas Tech and a 20-10 win at Baylor despite a predictably rocky effort as a passer in his first start. After leading the team to five straight three-and-outs to open the game against Oklahoma, though, he was effectively benched for the rest of the season in favor of Lee.
If Green's mind catches up to his obvious physical gifts, he won't be there for long: Besides the arm that inevitably comes with his stature, Green runs at least as well as Lee – he had three runs of at least 20 yards, including a 50-yard scamper against Florida Atlantic and a 43-yarder at Baylor – and drew rave reviews from teammates in the spring for vastly improved his accuracy, timing and command in the huddle. That's what everyone says about their teammate in the spring, obviously, but it's also exactly what 'Husker partisans need to hear to throw their weight behind the resident up-and-comer.
• The Darkhorse: The real insurgent is redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez, an "athlete" who was vastly overshadowed by Green in the '09 recruiting class and didn't even qualify as an afterthought in the quarterback picture as a true freshman – he was even behind a converted linebacker, Latravis Washington, who coaches moved to QB explicitly to shore up depth. With Lee sidelined, though, Martinez made the most of his increased snaps in the spring and stole the show with two touchdown passes and a team-high 60 yards rushing in the Red-White Game.
Martinez (listed at 6'1", 185 pounds in the spring) is the smallest of the three main candidates, the least experienced and the least likely to scare defenses in any way with his arm. But offensive coordinator Shawn Watson made a concerted effort to incorporate more quarterback runs last year, and Martinez is the best runner in the venerable Nebraska fashion of scrappy scramblers. He definitely has a fan club, too, which seems to view him as the current roster's answer to Eric Crouch.
• The Smart Money. Watson and head coach Bo Pelini have been rigidly tight-lipped since the spring, but bet against a viable senior incumbent at your own peril. With the exception of his three-touchdown fourth-quarter at Missouri, Lee was a nonentity in the 'Huskers' biggest games, and the lack of any kind of passing threat cost them dearly in all four losses. But it's not like he's radioactive; at the very least, the status quo option coming off arguably his best performance in the bowl game should be expected to start the season.
Given another cushy September schedule (Western Kentucky, Idaho, at Washington, South Dakota State), it should be Lee's job to lose again by the time Big 12 play really heats up over the second half of the season. If the defense is still good enough to keep the offense in its lo-fi comfort zone, it may take a full-scale meltdown to get the underclassmen on for more than a cameo.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.