Armstrong still has to prove himself in Lincoln
A burning question was finally put to rest last November — can Bo Pelini lead Nebraska back to glory? For better or worse, NU Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst decided that he couldn’t. Few were as publicly frustrated with that decision as Tommy Armstrong Jr. was. It wouldn’t have been a shock to hear that Armstrong was taking his talents elsewhere. With two years of eligibility left, the gunslinger would’ve had plenty of suitors, perhaps several in his home state of Texas.
But Armstrong bought into what new coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsford were selling. Now, as Armstrong enters his third season as the NU starter — that’s still hard to believe — another burning question remains in Lincoln.
Can Tommy Gunn lead the Huskers back to glory?
To be specific, “glory” isn’t Tom Osborne glory. That type of glory won’t be touched anytime soon. I repeat: That type of glory won’t be touched anytime soon, Nebraska fans.
But in the Big Ten West this year — where anything is possible — an improved Armstrong could be the difference-maker for a program that’s tired of just knocking on the door.
Armstrong was due to make a major step last year. He had the likes of Kenny Bell, Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El at his disposal. The rookie mistakes he made after taking over for Taylor Martinez as a redshirt freshman should’ve faded. Instead, they resurfaced.
Armstrong completed just 53.3 percent of his passes in 2014. Among Big Ten quarterbacks, only Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner was worse. In half of Nebraska’s conference games, Armstrong completed less than half his passes. Ungood.
He was good for a few head-scratchers every game. Sometimes he’d put it 15 yards from the nearest receiver and it was a harmless incompletion. On other occasions, it was a momentum-swinging interception. Either way, it left you thinking, “What in the world was Tommy looking at?”
Even more entertaining was when Pelini was asked in his postgame presser who was at fault for the miscommunications. Armstrong was never in the wrong. It was always the wrong route, according to Pelini. Nobody will ever know the real answer to that, but those breakdowns won’t fly under the new regime.
Langsdorf could be exactly what the doctor ordered. He spent last year coaching up Eli Manning with the New York Giants. Before his tenure at Oregon State, Langsdorf watched Peyton Manning flawlessly execute a pass-and-catch drill that preached efficiency and cohesion among a quarterback and its receivers. As the Omaha World-Herald’s Jon Nyatawa wrote, he implemented that at Nebraska.
Langsford’s impact should be felt by Armstrong. They’re keeping the same spread attack as last year, which means the Husker signal-caller won’t have to learn an entirely new playbook at the midway point of his career. Nebraska still wants to be a run-first offense and not rely on the passing game to move the chains.
That might be easier said than done without Armstrong’s best friend, Ameer Abdullah. It’s natural to assume that the guy who rushes for over six yards per carry is the quarterback’s best friend, right?
Don’t forget how fortunate Nebraska was to have a second team All-American like Abdullah. He was the only consistent option at Armstrong’s disposal last year. Kenny Bell was banged up with groin and head injuries, Jamal Turner tore his Achilles in the second game and Jordan Westerkamp was thrust into a No. 1 role before he was ready.
No longer can Armstrong dump it off to a guy that can turn a 5-yard drag into a 58-yard touchdown to help avoid a potentially disastrous loss to McNeese State. Not to be too specific.
The trio of Pierson-El, Turner and Westerkamp should still provide Armstrong with plenty of options. Everyone is excited about the playmaking ability of Pierson-El and rightfully so. Depending on how he’s used, the freshman sensation could be in store for more excitement in 2015.
But the new focal point of Nebraska’s offense has to be Armstrong. If the Huskers are going emerge from the wide-open West, Armstrong’s big right arm is sure to be a big reason why.