Not only do quarterbacks make or break a season, they can also make-or-break the career of a football coach. Thus, coaches have been and will always be linked to their quarterbacks whether good or bad.
In the case of Bill Callahan, he will always be linked to Zac Taylor and Sam Keller. In 2006, Zac Taylor set a Nebraska single-season record for total offense. He also won Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
While 2006 was not the most memorable year in the history of the program, it was a successful season. Nebraska won the north division and played Oklahoma in the conference championship game. It could have been a sign of success to come, but we all know what happened next.
Zac Taylor graduated.
There was no in-house successor in the eyes of the coaching staff. This included Joe Ganz who backed up Zac Taylor in 2006. So Bill Callahan brought in Sam Keller as a one-year rental. Nebraska fired Callahan after the season. The following season Joe Ganz broke school records with Bo Pelini as his head coach.
Fast forward to 2010. Bo Pelini hands the starting job to redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez. It was obvious from the beginning that Pelini had something special. Watch highlights of the 2010 Kansas State game if you need a reminder.
When Martinez was completely healthy, he was one of the best players in college football. But his career was replete of injuries. And when he was injured, the offense was anemic. He was a dual-threat quarterback who could no longer run. But Pelini stayed with Martinez. There was no quarterback behind him the staff trusted.
The cupboard was bare.
It took a season-ending injury before Pelini handed the reigns off to Tommy Armstrong. Armstrong remained the starter until he graduated. Like Martinez, Armstrong broke school records. And also like Martinez, Armstrong had injuries which diminished his ability to be effective.
We have seen this story before. The coaching staff rolled the dice with an injured dual threat quarterback who could not run.
The cupboard remained bare.
Now in 2017, Mike Riley finally has his quarterback. And like Bill Callahan, Riley has linked himself to a quarterback with two years left in the program.
Similar to Bo Pelini, Mike Riley is handing the reigns off to the previous season’s scout team quarterback. The hype machine for both Martinez and Tanner Lee is/was well known.
But what is different this time?
The cupboard is no longer bare.
Sitting behind Tanner Lee is redshirt freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien. This past spring, O’Brien battled Tanner Lee for first team reps leading up to the spring game. Sitting behind O’Brien is a true freshman quarterback in Tristan Gebbia. Gebbia graduated high school as California’s second all-time career leading passer.
I understand that the top three quarterbacks on the depth chart this upcoming season have not played a single meaningful snap in Memorial Stadium. Also maybe Tristan Gebbia should not count because he looks like he would get snapped in half in an actual football game.
But think about the next series of questions.
What if Tanner Lee lives up to the hype and leaves Nebraska for the NFL draft after his junior season? Is Nebraska is going to rely on a “Sam Keller Part 2?” No, I do not think so.
What if Tanner Lee injures his shoulder halfway through the season? As a result, Lee is not physically able to make all the throws and the coaching staff would have to cut the playbook by 40%. Do you think they still play Lee? No, I do not think so.
Like Callahan and Pelini before him, Riley will be forever linked to his quarterbacks. But unlike his predecessors, Riley has set himself up for success. If things do not go according to plan, Riley has options.
We don’t need Tanner Lee to be Zac Taylor. We don’t need Patrick O’Brien to be Joe Ganz and we don’t need Tristan Gebbia to be Taylor Martinez. What we need is quality depth at the quarterback position. This is something Nebraska football has for the first time in over a decade.