Four seasons of vexing quarterback play could be in the past for Nebraska. The Taylor Martinez era will be viewed with mixed emotions. He never led the Cornhuskers to a Big Ten championship, but the wins piled up and Nebraska left the Bill Callahan tenure in the dust – or corn.
Since Bo Pelini took over – and with Martinez as the starting quarterback – the Huskers have won nine or 10 games every season. Now, it’s time to win a conference title. Tommy Armstrong Jr. might be the element that’s eluded Nebraska.
He was inconsistent in eight starts last season and still managed to lead Nebraska to a 7-1 record. Preparation was the biggest roadblock, something Armstrong worked diligently on during the offseason.
“I’ve worked as hard as I can because I know next fall, it’s just going to be me," Armstrong told reporters this spring. “I’ve got to make the coaches happy, make sure my team has my back and make sure when things are going bad I’m the person who gets the team up. Last year, I kind of struggled in those areas.”
Hitting open receivers, making correct reads and engineering scoring drives are all important for quarterbacks. So too is managing a game and not turning the ball over, which could be defined as Armstrong’s biggest weakness in 2013. He had eight interceptions in as many starts and developed a case of fumble-itis. Two fumbles against Michigan State contributed to the Huskers’ loss.
|9/13||@ Fresno State|
|10/4||@ Michigan State|
You can guess what became a theme in the spring: correcting unforced errors. Armstrong’s interception rate plummeted. Mistake-free football is unrealistic. Asking a quarterback to limit mistakes is reasonable.
“When my number was called, sometimes I responded and sometimes I didn’t,” Armstrong said. “I understand that I’m going to make mistakes. It’s how you respond. Last year, I wasn’t good at responding to mistakes. It was like a domino effect.”
The ability to lead has never been a problem or question for Armstrong. Since taking the quarterback reins, he’s actually become more vocal and upped his work ethic. And he’s thrilled to have wide receiver Kenny Bell and running back Ameer Abdullah at his disposal.
Throwing the football has never come easy at Nebraska, with the current situation mirroring the past. The loss of wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and four offensive line starters only complicates matters. The aforementioned Bell and Abdullah should take pressure off of Armstrong.
“Kenny is dynamic. We didn’t get him the ball enough [last season],” Abdullah said.” Quincy Enunwa was a big vocal leader. Kenny is even more vocal. Guys like Taariq Allen are vocal, but Kenny is louder. He’s very dynamic. He runs the best post route in the country. We’re doing a lot to get him the ball more.”
Abdullah is coming off a season that includes nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns. A dark horse Heisman movement is already taking shape. There’s little secret to Nebraska’s run game being the team identity.
“My running style has to be smoother abd my ball protection has to be better,” Abdullah said. “Pass protection has to be better. If I can handle the worst now, it makes the season even easier. Whatever it is, I don’t want any flaws in my game.”
It helps that he goes up against Randy Gregory – potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft – and a stout defensive line every single day. Nebraska fields one of the top run defenses in the country, even with two new starters on the line. Abdullah said success against Gregory means he can run against anyone.
The defense returns nine starters, but again, can they avoid the occasional blowup. Pelini’s proven time and again he can coach defenses. That was as a defensive coordinator, though. Head-coaching years haven’t produced the same level of accomplishment.
Last season, the Huskers surrendered 38 straight points to UCLA, allowed 465 yards to FCS South Dakota State and experienced difficulty slowing offensive playmakers. Gregory wants the Blackshirts to return and respect to follow close behind.
It’s been five years since Nebraska’s possessed a nationally elite defense. For Husker fans, that’s the equivalent of a light year. Many point to 2014 as being the return to glory.
Along with Gregory, there’s David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach at linebacker, a deep cast of starters. Stanley Jean-Baptiste’s departure is most impactful on defense. That is unless Josh Mitchell, LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry provide glue coverage.
“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.”
The biggest – and often final – hurdle is mental. Perhaps Nebraska has scar tissue and a fragile psyche after decades of dominance followed by an extended period of pedestrian play.
Will the 2014 season result in broken barriers – or fractured dreams?