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Growth of QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. rates as big for Nebraska as 1-2 start

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has thrown for 898 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions in three games under new Nebraska coach Mike Riley. Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY Sports

LINCOLN, Neb. -- The No. 1 question of spring and summer, as coach Mike Riley navigated his first offseason at Nebraska, involved the quarterback: Was Tommy Armstrong Jr. an adequate fit for this new system?

Despite two losses in three games, the answer to that same question provides the most resounding message of the new era in Lincoln: Yes.

Armstrong has performed admirably, considering the transition in place. He's thrown for 898 yards, second in the Big Ten, completing a career-high 56.9 percent of his throws with nine touchdowns.

He's shown well as a leader. The junior QB told receiver Alonzo Moore that the Huskers would come back and win last week at Miami before Armstrong directed touchdown drives of 75, 80 and 87 yards over the final 11 minutes -- and converted a pair of two-point conversions to force overtime after Nebraska trailed by 23 points.

The Huskers lost 36-33 after Armstrong was intercepted on the first play of OT.

"That one's on me," Armstrong said, recounting a conversation with his linemen. "We've just got to live and learn from our mistakes."

Renewed opportunity greets Armstrong and the Huskers next week with the open of Big Ten play at Illinois.

But the best news for the Huskers about Armstrong's promising start as a passer is that he's back next season for an encore with Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.

The first year after a dramatic shift like this does not often go smoothly. There will be moments where it looks right, like the fourth quarter Saturday, and times where it's just the opposite. The opening quarter against Miami produced 66 yards and four punts in four possessions.

The chance for stability arrives next year, right on schedule for Armstrong to cement his legacy.

Of course, he's thinking only about this season. And Nebraska still appears equipped to contend in the West Division, perhaps more even than a month ago because of its quick-study quarterback.

"We have found that the transition with Tommy has been very good," Riley said.

Two years ago this week, Armstrong started his first game at Nebraska in place of injured senior Taylor Martinez. As a redshirt freshman, he led four touchdown drives in five possessions against South Dakota State.

He began to come of age, though, last year during fourth-quarter comebacks at Michigan State and Iowa. The Huskers beat the Hawkeyes in overtime, and Armstrong went on to throw for 381 yards in the Holiday Bowl against USC.

His most impressive accomplishment, perhaps, has taken place this year, meshing with the new staff. Armstrong has simultaneously assumed a more prominent role among teammates and improved as a QB.

"It's a big difference," said Moore, the junior receiver who caught the first of three fourth-quarter TD throws last week. "We trust him."

Armstrong and Langsdorf, the play caller, have grown close. But the relationship with Riley additionally accelerated Armstrong's growth and figures to push him higher by the end of the 2016. When Riley took over last December, Armstrong was among the first players to form a bond with the new coach.

On Monday, talking about quarterback development and skill, Riley mentioned Marcus Mariota, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson in a span of five minutes. It wasn't forced or done to impress anyone. Riley simply likes to talk about QB play.

He likes to watch Armstrong, too, especially when the quarterback enters his fourth-quarter mode. In the final 15 minutes of three games, he's 16-of-27 for 273 yards, fifth nationally.

His fourth-quarter QBR is 95.6, tops in the nation among quarterbacks who've thrown more than 17 passes.

The next challenge for Armstrong is to play that way for 60 minutes. From the look of his progress in short time this year, it's coming.

"He's a great competitor," said junior Jordan Westerkamp, Armstrong's roommate and top receiving target, "and we're just glad he's on our team."