Shortly after the Nebraska Cornhuskers completed their annihilation of the Arizona Wildcats in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, quarterback Zac Lee unveiled some interesting news about his health.
For the majority of the season, Lee was playing with a torn ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm, which he somehow managed to keep quiet. The often-inaccurate quarterback played with pain through the Holiday Bowl and after revealing this injury during the post-game press conference, said that he expected to have off-season surgery to correct the problem.
This certainly raises the question on what this potential filled prospect can bring to Nebraska. Could Lee’s performance this season just be the tip of the iceberg of what he can offer this budding BCS contender? Is Lee capable of taking this team to the next level in his final season as a Cornhusker?
It is quite possible.
Although his numbers in his first year as a regular starter are mediocre at best, the pro-style/power running offense installed in desperation mid-way through the season appears to be working more in Lee’s favor.
Lee began his football career playing in a similar run-first offense at Saint Ignatius College Prep High School in San Francisco. Even though he went on to a junior college right after high school, he was still highly recruited because of his Western Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) success.
Although he saw practically zero time his first year in Nebraska, Lee got the nod to start the 2009 season despite statewide questions about his ability to lead this team through their offense woes. Unfortunately for Lee, the Cornhuskers started off the year in a spread-style offense, a system that didn’t exactly play to his strong suit.
As he displayed in high school and JC, Lee relished in offenses that builds off of this run-first mentality…And after the overnight change in offensive thinking by on-the-outs offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, things slowly began to fall into place for the young quarterback.
Before the swapping of offensive playbooks, Zac, the son of former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Bob Lee, averaged 28.1 attempts per game but his 10 touchdowns and six interceptions raised some concerns. While the spread offense seemed to be getting the job done early against Nebraska’s undemanding September schedule, as conference play began, so did the downfall of his offense production.
After being benched for the Baylor game due to a horrendous offensive performance the week prior, Lee’s return as the Cornhuskers’ signal caller against Oklahoma was hardly magical. But this blue-collared worker version of Zac worked much better for him and the Nebraska offense.
Lee said it best after the bowl game, “We won some ugly games [this season]…but we are trying to be us… [and in this new offense] it is definitely more us.”
For the rest of the Big 12 regular season, Lee threw more than 20 passes only once. Nebraska went 4-0 in their final stretch of games, Zac threw three touchdowns and only one interception, and the Cornhuskers reached their first Big 12 championship game in three years.
Lee’s performance in the Big 12 Championship game was painful, throwing three interceptions and only completing 31.6 percent of his passes, but he did his best to make up for it at the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.
The Cornhuskers’ 33-point drumming of the Wildcats came in large part because of Lee’s ability to manage this offense (along with the help of an absolutely amazing defense). Surprisingly, Zac did it with both his arm and his legs. The 6' 2" quarterback rushed for a season-high 65 yards and opened up the unusually high scoring game with his four-yard bootleg run, which the fastest touchdown in Pacific Life Holiday Bowl history.
The revelation that Lee was playing with a bum elbow for most of the season has to bring a little more hope around what this offense can accomplish with him calling the plays next season. And the fact that Lee has a strong supporting cast also has to be comforting.
Freshman running back Rex Burkhead’s 92 yards in the Holiday Bowl and the overall performance in 2009 by Junior running back Roy Helu Jr. reminded fans that the future of their backfield is awfully bright. Plus, Lee’s apparent ability to scramble with the ball adds a new wrinkle that this offense can exploit.
But the weapons don’t stop there for this revived Nebraska offense.
Niles Paul, the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl Player of the Game, gives Lee a nice target to focus on once opponents are fully engaged with their Cornhuskers dangerous two-headed back field. The two connected on a 74-yard touchdown bomb to put the bowl game out of reach in the third quarter and if they can recreate this magic next season, Nebraska could have National Championship potential.
As Coach Bo Pelini said about Lee after their bowl game “He led this football…He played with swagger…He played his tail off”
If Lee can continue playing with this confidence and swagger with his new and improved elbow, the sky is the limit for The Big Red in 2010.