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Tanner Lee’s introduction as Nebraska’s new starting quarterback has been nothing like what fans, coaches and even he had expected through the first three games of the season.
Not only are the Huskers off to a dismal 1-2 start, the junior transfer from Tulane has completed just 52.5 percent of his passes, been sacked six times and taken numerous other hits in the pocket, and currently leads all of FBS with seven interceptions.
After a solid debut in the opener vs. Arkansas State, Lee’s numbers have become progressively worse in two straight losses to Oregon and Northern Illinois. Following a four-pick outing against the Ducks, Lee was intercepted three more times last week by the Huskies, including two pick-sixes in a 21-17 defeat.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said he wasn’t worried about Lee’s confidence following the Oregon loss, but after back-to-back disappointing performances, has that concern changed regarding NU’s top signal caller?
“He’s been very good,” Langsdorf said of Lee’s demeanor this week. “He hasn’t changed anything in his preparation. I think anytime you get hit as many times as he has, and some of the turnovers, I think it’s probably natural to have a little bit of shaken confidence like all of us. But he is really a great character kid, he’s got great work ethic and he’s just right back preparing like he did the last couple weeks.
"So I’m not worried about him shrinking. I think he’ll continue to get better, continue to learn. He’s new, he’s new for us, and there are and have been some growing pains, but there’s been some stuff where he has taken a beating and he’s a tough kid. He’s coming back so I would expect the same thing from him in the future.”
Both Langsdorf and head coach Mike Riley have noted the lack of pass protection Lee’s had has played a part in his poor numbers so far this year.
Because he hasn’t had much time in the pocket, they said, Lee has been forced to rush his throws and really hasn’t been comfortable in the passing game.
“He’s trying to make plays but I think he’s staying within the play too,” Langsdorf said. “I don’t think it’s been a product of trying to do too much on his own. You look at this interception stuff and half of them this year aren’t his fault, whether he’s gotten hit or a tipped ball or those kinds of things.
“I think he’s playing within the system and trying to do a good job of going through a progression.”
- Robin Washut
Knevel back in pads, but freshmen OTs ready if needed
Nebraska got some positive news on Tuesday when senior right tackle David Knevel suited up for practice for the first time in more than two weeks after being out with an ankle injury.
However, for the second day in a row the Huskers was without its No. 2 right tackle with redshirt freshman Matt Farniok still sidelined with a broken wrist.
Given that we was able to practice in at least some capacity on Tuesday, NU is still holding out hope that Knevel can return to action this week for the first time since the season opener. Farniok could be able to see the field in some capacity though he won’t be at full strength.
However, if neither is ready to take on the starting role, it will be up to a pair of newcomers to take on the biggest workloads of their young careers in either/or redshirt freshman Christian Gaylord and true freshman Brenden Jaimes.
Langsdorf and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said the competition was “50/50” between Gaylord and Jaimes at this point for who would be next in line after Knevel and Farniok this week.
“They’ve had to step up,” Langsdorf said. “It’s just like anybody on our team that has had injuries. We have to expect the next guy to go in there and perform and try to do our best to put them in a situation to help them. We’ve had to try a lot of different things to help the line and we’re continuing to work that out.”
Cavanaugh said he’s been encouraged by both players over the course of the offseason.
“Gaylord is a guy that’s athletic,” Cavanaugh said. “Jaimes has a lot of great tools. He’s a guy that doesn’t really flinch, he’s a good athlete, he loves football. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Should he get the nod, it would be the next big step in Jaimes’ rapid rise up the Huskers’ o-line depth chart. The former three-star from Austin (Texas) Lake Travis earned plenty of praise during fall camp, and he’s continued to impress on into the season.
“No question,” Cavanaugh said when asked if he could tell there was something special about Jaimes right away. “He was probably one of the most further along offensive linemen guys. When we started doing our drills, he didn’t take long.”
- Robin Washut
Offense struggling with low third-down conversion clip
Following a dismal 2-for-14 showing on third down at Oregon, Nebraska's offense vowed to pick things up on the money down.
Instead, the changes didn’t pay off, as the Huskers saw five drives end in three-and-outs and sported an unsightly 6-for-19 stat line on third down against Northern Illinois.
“It’s been a huge part of our deal,” Langsdorf said. “You’re hoping to get maybe 3rd-and-5, 3rd-and-medium, in that range, and we were down there 3rd-and-2 and don’t get it on one run and one pass.
“Those are critical. Those are huge drive stops."
After the first drive of the game, the Huskers finished the first quarter with four straight drives that ended with a botched third-down play - three three-and-outs and one pick six.
“We have too many three-and-outs,” Langsdorf said, referencing the five against NIU and the four against Oregon. “It’s doing the work on first and second down to get to a good third down, but then we’ve got to convert it too at the same time.”
Only two teams in the nation have fewer third-down conversions with as many attempts as Nebraska in 2017, and just 15 teams are converting worse than NU’s 31.9 percent clip.
One of the biggest matchup problems plaguing the team on third downs has been press coverage. Of the seven interceptions in the last two games, four were against press coverage (three on third down), and wide receivers coach Keith Williams believes the Huskers will see more of the same defense this week.
“We haven’t had much of a problem getting off presses, it’s making the play after that,” Williams said. "Rutgers has shown to play some press; I’m quite sure that they won’t deviate from that for us.”
Keyan Williams finally returns from injury
Nebraska’s wide receiving corps went from a fairly loaded group to facing some serious depth concerns after an offseason full of injuries and defections.
But the Huskers might be close to getting back a player who was pegged to be a major contributor this season entering the start of fall camp.
Junior Keyan Williams, who suffered a hamstring injury during fall camp and has since missed the first three games of the year, was back at practice for the first time in over a month on Tuesday.
It remains to be seen when the Fresno State transfer will be ready to suit up for a game, as there was a point during camp where he tried to return to practice but ended up setting his injury back another few weeks.
Keith Williams took the blame for his son’s hamstring issues, crediting some unfortunate genetics.
“Unfortunately, I think it might be inherited,” Keith said. “My hamstrings are like guitar strings. So I just said, ‘Son, I apologize.’”
When Keyan does get back into the mix, the Huskers will have a player who was considered by some as the No. 1 slot receiver coming out of spring practices.
Keith Williams said there was a definite need for some more depth in the wideout room, but the unit was ready to continue to roll with the guys they have for as long as necessary.
“I mean (the depth) is a concern, just in terms that you want everybody healthy regardless of what situation is,” Keith Williams said. “So depth is a concern just in general because when you have multiple guys banged up, that’s never good.
“Other than that, every guy that goes out there is prepared to play and play at their best, and that’s all you can ask.”
- Robin Washut
***Here are the players who did not practice on Tuesday: running back Tre Bryant, safety Joshua Kalu, linebacker Marcus Newby, right tackle Matt Farniok, linebacker Tyrin Ferguson, and wide receiver Stanley Morgan.
***The good news was right tackle David Knevel was back in pads for the first time since injuring his ankle in the opener against Arkansas State.
***Linebackers coach Trent Bray said they will continue to monitor Ferguson’s status this week before making a decision on what to do at CAT linebacker this week vs. Rutgers.
***Lee said he’s not been bothered by any of the criticism he’s heard about his play the past two weeks. Asked what he would have done differently on his first pick six vs. NIU, Lee joked: “Not throw it.”
***Special teams/safeties coach Scott Booker said De’Mornay Pierson-El is still their guy at punt returner. Even though Pierson-El has made mistakes, Booker said they know how good he can be in that role. Booker said the competition is always open at that spot, but at this point it doesn’t make sense to make a change.
***Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Rutgers’ offense was led by a veteran offensive line with four of five returning starters and a four-man running back rotation. Diaco also said RU tight end Jerome Washington was maybe the best all-around tight end Nebraska has faced this season.
***Diaco praised Ferguson’s play vs. Northern Illinois, said he played hard and was “on his job” all game. Diaco said Ferguson did a great job of preparing to be the next man up all week in practice.
***Diaco said Nebraska was able to dial up more blitzes vs. NIU partly because of the style of offense the Huskies ran, but also because NU’s staff is more familiar with their personnel and what their best pressure strengths are.
***Diaco said safety Marquel Dismuke did a great job stepping into the rotation on Saturday. Though Dismuke is inexperienced, Diaco called him “a football intelligent guy” and said he has no reservations about putting Dismuke in the game.
***Bray said freshman Avery Roberts hasn’t played a defensive snap yet, only on special teams. Bray said Roberts has handled his role well, and it’s just a matter of too many veteran inside linebackers ahead of him.
***Gaylord said they haven’t heard anything from the coaching staff about who will start at right tackle this week. He said while Knevel returned to action on Tuesday, it was a 50/50 split with the first-team offense between him and Jaimes.