LINCOLN, Neb. -- This week, we ranked the top 10 players on the Nebraska roster and placed quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. atop the list. That’s debatable, I know.
He’s not an NFL prospect at his position. But Armstrong is the most accomplished player in the Nebraska locker room and presumably the team’s preeminent leader. It sure looked that way last week at the Red-White game as Armstrong stood front and center, facing his teammates amid the billowing white smoke as the Cornhuskers practiced their Tunnel-Walk entrance.
He has talked a solid game over the past five months and undoubtedly matured, embracing adulthood away from the field and on it. At this point in Armstrong’s career arc, there’s no room for middle ground -- either you believe in the 22-year-old Texan or you don’t.
That perspective likely shapes your view of Nebraska in 2016.
On one side of the Armstrong discussion, the Huskers appear worthy of status among the favorites in the Big Ten West after a 6-7 season. The opposing viewpoint says that he’s serviceable until 2017, when Nebraska can move forward offensively -- and as a program -- with a new quarterback recruited and groomed by this second-year coaching staff.
It’s an important distinction. Program-altering, in fact.
But Nebraska coach Mike Riley can’t afford a second season of mediocre QB play. Armstrong, despite eye-popping statistical accomplishments -- he’s on track in September to set career records at Nebraska for touchdown passes and passing yardage -- threw 16 interceptions last year. His career completion percentage sits at 54 percent.
And frankly, the conclusion of spring practice at Memorial Stadium, on a stage before some 73,000 fans, did little to inspire confidence in the Nebraska passing attack.
“We missed some throws that are easy completions,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “Those are the things that are frustrating.”
The state of the passing game still does not allow for the easy things to come easily.
Armstrong hit 8 of 15 throws for 80 yards in the spring game. Backup Ryker Fyfe looked more precise with a 15-of-21 performance primarily against the No. 1 defense. Of course, Fyfe, in his lone start, threw four interceptions in a loss last year at Purdue as Armstrong stayed home with a foot injury.
Sophomore AJ Bush displayed his athleticism in the spring. True freshman Patrick O’Brien offered a taste of his talent in the fourth quarter, but he’s far from ready.
With O’Brien and 2017 recruit Tristan Gebbia, playing the role of rock star on the sideline next to high school teammate and fellow Husker pledge Keyshawn Johnson Jr., the future looks bright at quarterback for Nebraska. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee joins the team this summer. He’ll sit next fall during Armstrong’s final season.
So what are the Huskers to do in this awkwardly urgent time?
A hint surfaced in the spring game as Riley and Langsdorf pulled the covers back on an arsenal of play calls. Armstrong rushed six times for 120 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown on a QB draw.
“That was a goal all spring,” Langsdorf said, “to improve that.”
Maybe it’s the difference, at quarterback, between a season stuck in neutral and one that allows the Huskers to power forward.
“Just let him run,” Fyfe said, assessing Armstrong’s play. “He’s more comfortable when he gets to go out and run.”
Armstrong said he’s ready for whatever Langsdorf calls. A year ago, the QB said, the Huskers had just learned how to form a huddle.
They're several steps ahead this year, as you'd expect.
“It all starts with me being able to identify certain things,” Armstrong said, "make plays with my legs in certain aspects, and just [be] smart with the ball. Let my feet determine where I need to go with the ball.”
His feet are the key.
“Some of it looks OK,” Riley said after the final practice, “and some of it, we aren’t quite there.”
That may continue for another year to serve as the theme for Nebraska’s quarterback play.
Two routes exist, it seems, for Nebraska at quarterback over the next seven months. The Huskers already tried one path, asking Armstrong to throw 402 passes in 13 games. For Nebraska to advance behind its QB and for Armstrong to validate the offseason talk -- to confirm that spot as the Huskers' best player -- it's time to take the road less traveled.
Let him run.