Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Today's installment: Nebraska.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Competition means something different to everyone.
It’s a battle for some; for others, a necessity.
For Tommy Armstrong Jr., competition is a way of life. He embraced it last season when many might have withered, grasping the top quarterback job at Nebraska as a redshirt freshman in place of injured, career-long starter Taylor Martinez.
Armstrong fought consistency but came out on top, winning his final start against Georgia in the Gator Bowl.
And that’s when Kenny Bell was sure about Armstrong.
“You know guys who have that fire inside,” said Bell, a rising senior and the Huskers’ top wide receiver.
Notably, Bell points to I-back Ameer Abdullah, the top returning rusher nationally.
“In my mind, he’s the best running back in the country,” Bell said. “Tommy has that same kind of fire.
“I love Tommy. I’m all in with Tommy. I’ve got nothing but faith in the kid. What he showed me against Georgia, he might not make every perfect read or every perfect play, but the kid will compete. That’s what I care about. That’s most important to me -- guys who genuinely care about this team and compete with everything they have. That’s what I love and respect about Tommy.”
Spring practice began at Nebraska on Saturday with an open quarterback competition among Armstrong, redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, senior wide-receiver convert Jamal Turner and walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe.
Seventh-year coach Bo Pelini said he doesn’t classify the sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games and threw for 966 yards in 2013, in the same category as returners such as Bell or Abdullah.
Realistically, though, Armstrong owns the inside track to start next fall. And he doesn’t plan to give an inch.
“Everything’s a competition,” Armstrong said on Monday after the Huskers’ second of 15 practices this spring. “Anything can happen. Last year, my number was called. This year, I’m the No. 1 guy right now, and I just want to keep that.”
The confident Texan completed 51.9 percent of his throws (68 of 131) and threw nine touchdowns. He also tossed eight interceptions and lost two fumbles.
Freshmen stuff, Armstrong said.
He often repeated mistakes within a game.
“It was a domino effect,” he said.
No more. Armstrong says he is smarter and more in control. He’s poised to serve as a leader of the quarterbacks despite his tenuous position among the group.
Looking back, he said, he wasn’t nearly as ready for last season -- just 15 months out of high school -- as he thought at the time of his first start in September. The competition fueled him.
“Last year it was just a thing that happened,” Armstrong said. “But this year, I’m trying to work as hard as I can to become the No. 1 guy and keep that in control, become better at the game, become better at what I did last year.”
Important people back him. And not just Bell.
“He’s a very confident kid,” said Abdullah, returning for his senior season after rushing for 1,690 yards in 2013. “It doesn’t take you long to see that ... We have a lot of faith in him. I expect a lot out of Tommy.”
Abdullah described Armstrong, six months after his first start, as a “guy with influence” among the Huskers.
“We need him to be a leader,” Abdullah said. “All the guys look up to him, because, let’s face, he touches the ball every play.”
Abdullah won’t let Armstrong rest of his accomplishments. After all, he's not alone in Lincoln as an accomplished quarterback.
Stanton, a state-champion QB from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., earned co-MVP honors at the prestigious Elite 11 competition in the summer of 2012.
Stanton seems to enjoy a good competition, too. So far, like Armstrong a year ago, he’s fighting to prove himself.
Armstrong shared a close relationship last season with senior Ron Kellogg III.
It’s not like that with Stanton.
“We like competing,” Armstrong said. “That’s just how we were taught, growing up when it comes to our football, where we’re from. Texas is big-time football; California is big-time football. That’s the competitive nature of both of us.”
Turner, who came to Nebraska as a quarterback three years ago, adds another element to the mix.
“One thing I try to bring is that swag,” he said. “Everyone else can see that and play a little harder -- play with the swag that I have.”
Armstrong and Stanton directed state championship runs in their home states, as did true freshman Zack Darlington in Florida two years ago. Darlington joined the Huskers in January. Classmate A.J. Bush plans to enroll in August. He won a state title last fall in Georgia.
Clearly, Pelini likes the winning pedigree and the competition it breeds.
“I want each guy to worry about making themselves better each and every day,” he said. “That’s the key. Don’t worry about where you’re repping, who you’re repping with or anything else. Try to play efficient, winning football.
“I think they’re all guys who are athletic. They have the tools to get it done. But across the board, they’ve got a lot to learn.”