Coaches might not like to admit it publicly and instead prefer to stick to a “next-man-up” message with their teams, but there’s always at least one player a program can’t afford to lose.
This week, the Big Ten reporting crew is trying to identify the guys across the league who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they suffered an injury, were lost to suspension, unexpectedly retired to play minor league baseball, etc. Whether it’s based on individual talent or lack of depth at a position, the goal is to find the true most valuable player on every roster in the conference as the march toward the 2016 season continues.
Up next: Nebraska
Most indispensable player: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr.
If the veteran at the most important position on the field wasn’t already the clear choice heading into Mike Riley’s second season with the program, spring practice and the hints at where the offense is heading only solidified Armstrong’s claim as the one guy the Huskers surely can’t survive without this fall.
For better or worse, there is plenty of evidence of what the senior can do with his arm after he was called on to air the football out more than 400 times a year ago. That workload has provided some gaudy statistics and has him on track to potentially rewrite Nebraska’s storied record book, but it comes with the caveat that Armstrong dealt with some consistency problems with his accuracy and also tossed 16 interceptions in 2015. But assuming another offseason of technical development, another year of maturity and more time absorbing the playbook leads to improvement in those areas, it’s another part of his game that figures to take his value to an even higher level.
Armstrong has shown he can be a weapon with his legs, and he actually led Nebraska with seven rushing touchdowns a year ago. But while he carried the ball nearly 100 times last season, Nebraska didn’t ever seem fully committed to tapping into the potential his quick feet and speed might provide for the offensive attack.
Part of that might have been tied to questions about the depth behind him, and as the Huskers left spring camp last month, that may still be a valid concern for Riley. But the spring game offered some clues that Nebraska is ready to heap more on Armstrong's plate, in the form of a couple play calls designed to take advantage of the quarterback's mobility. He responded with 120 yards rushing -- including a 44-yard touchdown on a designed draw.
Spring game statistics don’t count for anything, and exhibitions can certainly be misleading. But if a presumptive leader, a veteran and the clear-cut starter at the most important spot on the field is gaining even more responsibility this season, it’s difficult to see how the Huskers won't go as far as a healthy Armstrong can carry them.