Tommy Armstrong has spent the past two seasons learning on his feet how to be a Big Ten quarterback.
And then Nebraska changed coaching staffs.
Armstrong, who started eight games in relief of an injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, started every game for the Huskers a season ago and did a pretty good job. His numbers weren’t up there with the J.T. Barretts and Connor Cooks of the world — but then again, neither were anyone else’s.
Last season, Armstrong completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. He was also the team’s second-leading rusher behind Ameer Abdullah, gaining 705 yards on the ground and reaching the end zone six times with his legs. He’s a dual-threat quarterback, no doubt about it.
And it looked like Armstrong was well on his way to being one of the Big Ten’s best at the position in 2015 before Nebraska fired Bo Pelini and brought in Mike Riley. The new head coach brings a new offense with him, and while Armstrong will surely be able to handle it, you wonder if it will decrease his potential for stardom.
"Last year, we had more of a zone-read type of thing, run or pass selection into all of our plays pretty much. This year, most of it's we're going to run or we're going to pass. And it's either you're going to complete it or it's going to be an incompletion,” Armstrong said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “You can't bail yourself out with your feet. You have to complete passes and be accurate and give your guys a chance to catch the ball. That's what we've been working on in the offseason, just making sure we're more accurate, tallying up all our passes and completions with the quarterbacks and being held in high expectation when it comes to completion rate."
That sounds like Armstrong’s dual-threat ability might be taken off the board, but Riley is glad Armstrong can do it all. It might change the offense Riley’s staff ran for years at Oregon State, but it might prove better for the Huskers in 2015.
"With Tommy, he's able to run the football,” Riley said. “He's had experience running some of the zone-read stuff. His mobility in throwing the football outside the pocket is good. So it's made us in a lot of ways kind of get out of our own box and look at what's good for the players because what you want to do all the time is not necessarily what's going to be best to do for your team. And so discovering it and selecting that, like I said, is a big, big issue in how this is going to look in this season."
Armstrong has at times looked great. He had little trouble hooking up with Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp the past two seasons to produce a passing attack capable of some big-time gains and some highlight-reel plays.
Bell is gone after graduating last season, as is Ameer Abdullah, the safety-valve of a running back who was one of the country’s finest a season ago. Things will get a bit trickier for Armstrong without that reliable running game. Many of the options at running back have little experience.
But Westerkamp is still around, and the Armstrong-to-Westerkamp connection will be relied on heavily, not just because of the losses of Bell and Abdullah but also because of injuries in the receiving corps, including one to De’Mornay Pierson-El that has knocked him out for almost two months.
"He's matured so much, and he had to right away, playing so early. He's a great quarterback, and we're lucky to have him,” Westerkamp said of Armstrong. “He's gotten better in all areas. He works his tail off all the time. He takes teaching. We've got a great new quarterbacks coach in coach (Danny) Langsdorf who's coached great quarterbacks, so he's definitely taking the teaching from all of them. That's what you need out of a guy like that, out of your leader. You need a guy who can take the coaching. He's been doing a great job, and he's improved in all aspects of his game."
So it’s more learning on the fly for Armstrong. Will the new Nebraska offense settle into place in a hurry, or will it take time? That’s a question to be answered once the season begins. Armstrong is a talented quarterback. He’s been a great one for the Huskers in recent seasons. Now it’s time to find out if, with new challenges, he can keep that success going.