Nebraska quarterback looks past what-ifs

Thursday, October 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:38 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 8, 2009
Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee is the son of former NFL quarterback Bob Lee

COLUMBIA — Zac Lee has barely considered it.

How would things be different if Blaine Gabbert had upheld his commitment to play for Nebraska?

Who knows?

"'What ifs' are really fun to ask, but I haven't really put much stock in it," Lee said by phone Monday.

"What ifs?" are fun to ask. And for the rest of Lee's time at Nebraska people will inevitably intertwine his and Gabbert's fates.

But for Lee, Thursday night isn't a chance to prove the Huskers don't need Gabbert. It's a meeting between two ranked teams and a chance to create some separation in a conference race that looks to be up for grabs.

"It's a Big 12 North game," Lee said. "We don't need any extra motivation beyond that."

That the paths the quarterbacks are converging is surprising considering how far apart they started.

Lee is the charismatic California kid with the big smile. He is the son of former NFL quarterback Bob Lee, who spent 12 seasons in the league including stints with the Vikings, Falcons and Rams. He spends his time at the press conference podium mixing in jokes about daytime TV with typical quarterback lingo.

Gabbert is the athletic aberration from Ballwin; the Midwestern kid who does his best to make his every quote disappear as quickly as it left his mouth.

But thanks to a head coach with NFL experience, Bill Callahan, and the allure of a storied program, both were set to be under center for the Huskers for the 2008 season.

All it took was the fall of 2007 to change all that.

Following losses by more than 30 points to Missouri and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks, Nebraska fired its athletic director, Steve Pederson.

Gabbert and his family saw the writing was on the wall for Callahan. Originally attracted to Nebraska by Callahan's West Coast offense, Gabbert pulled his commitment after the head coach's fate became apparent and eventually signed with Missouri.

Callahan was fired at the end of the season and Lee, who was redshirting during the 2007 season, had a decision to make. Make like Gabbert and skip town? Or stick with the Huskers?

Big Red won out.

"It's such a great place to play college football," Lee said of his decision to stay. "If you're going to play college ball, you might as well play at Nebraska. This is what college football is all about."

Last season, Gabbert made his first visit to Lincoln since he spurned the Huskers when the Tigers traveled to Nebraska for its first conference game. It didn't take long for the mud to start flying. Husker fans let him know early, and with feeling, that they didn't appreciate his waffling. The 52-17 drubbing probably didn't do much to lessen the blow.

But through four games this season Lee is making it easier for Huskers fans to soften their scorn.

The junior has thrown nine touchdowns to just three interceptions, and his 155.21 passer rating is just 11 points shy of the lofty figure Gabbert has produced.

Performances against Arkansas State, Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Lafayette aren't the most accurate of measuring sticks, however.

To some, Thursday night is. With Gabbert on one sideline and Lee on the other, Memorial Stadium seems like the perfect lab for an experiment between what is and what could have been.

For Lee, the idea of a contest between he and Gabbert hasn't even crossed his mind.

"There's always extra stuff that goes along with every game," Lee said. "You just have to move it out of your head and be worried about what you have to be worried about."

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