Lincoln, Neb. Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee showed up for the start of preseason practice Saturday with a repaired right elbow and a new attitude.
Lee missed all of spring practice to recover from surgery, and while he was gone fans and media became enamored with his backups.
Now Lee finds himself in a battle with Cody Green and Taylor Martinez to keep his job.
“He knows that the other guys played well this spring,” receiver Mike McNeill said. “They’re the ones being talked about, and I think he probably has a little chip on his shoulder saying, ‘I was the quarterback last year, and now everyone is trying to dethrone me, and everyone is giving credit to the other guys.’ “
Lee said McNeill’s assessment is right on.
“Yeah, I grab whatever I can and use it as motivation,” he said. “It’s Nebraska. The fans take what they can get and go with it.”
Lee, Green and Martinez are scheduled to get an equal number of snaps in the practices leading to the Sept. 4 opener against Western Kentucky, and coach Bo Pelini said it might be October before the position is settled.
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said after practice that the competition among the three is “dead even.”
As a junior, Lee started 12 games and completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,143 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Lee and the Huskers were anything but dynamic before their 33-0 Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona.
Nebraska went through a four-game stretch in which it produced a total of four touchdowns. Watson adopted a play-it-safe philosophy at midseason, asking Lee to manage the game and keep the Huskers out of bad plays while the Ndamukong Suh-led defense carried the team to the Big 12 North title.
Before the bowl, in which Nebraska scored on seven of eight possessions and rolled up 396 yards, the Huskers were on track to have their least productive offense since 1968.
Lee rejoined his teammates three weeks ago for 7-on-7 drills.
“I could throw before that, pain-free, but it was more of a worry of forcing a ball or overthrowing a ball, just being in a competitive situation,” he said. “It was about making sure I was completely healed before I got in any competitive situation. The arm strength feels good, really good today.”
Receiver Brandon Kinnie said Lee’s throws were like a “rocket.”
“He was lasering it in there,” he said.
Kinnie said Lee assumed a leadership role when he came out for drills.
“I see a different person in him now,” Kinnie said.
Lee exudes more confidence, and Kinnie said he was impressed, and surprised, with how Lee has pulled aside teammates and admitted to some of his shortcomings last season, such as a failure to see open receivers.
“That’s just part of trying to get better,” Lee said.
The Huskers signed autographs and mingled with about 5,000 people who turned out at Memorial Stadium for the team’s annual Fan Day in the morning.
A few hours later they practiced on the grass fields northeast of the stadium. The 91-degree temperature combined with 52-percent humidity made it feel like 98 degrees.
“It was a typical first day,” Pelini said. “I thought the effort was good. A lot of mistakes, obviously.”