Some Nebraska football fans were baying for redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong when they watched Taylor Martinez struggle at the start of this season. With Martinez’s foot injury likely sidelining him for the year, those fans have gotten their wish as the keys to Nebraska’s offense have been handed to Armstrong.
And Armstrong has delivered much of his promise, leading Nebraska to a 5-1 record as a starter and directing the game-winning drive to snap Michigan’s 19-game winning streak in Ann Arbor. But he also struggled against Michigan State on Saturday, only completing 42.9 percent of his passes and accounting for three of Nebraska’s five turnovers in NU’s defeat.
The starting quarterback job looks to be Armstrong’s almost by default for the rest of this year. But if Armstrong wants to keep the job going forward, here are five things he will need to work on.
All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
Even if Armstrong does everything else right, if this issue doesn’t get fixed, then Nebraska cannot consider him as a serious candidate as a starter for 2014. In three games, Armstrong has accounted for nine turnovers. He has seven interceptions to go with his seven touchdown passes.
That’s simply not good enough. There’s a lot to like about Armstrong’s demeanor, his decisiveness and his ability to run the option. But Nebraska just gave away a game against a Top 15 team—and a chance to win a division title—on the back of a five-turnover disaster. Unless Armstrong develops the skills to significantly reduce his turnovers, he simply cannot be trusted to run Nebraska’s offense.
In some ways, this goal fits in with Armstrong’s need to protect the ball. More often than not, when Armstrong throws the ball it ends up in an area nowhere near a Nebraska receiver. This is not for a lack of accuracy—Armstrong has demonstrated more than adequate ability to put the ball on a spot when needed.
Instead, it appears that Armstrong and his receivers aren’t on the same page in terms of where the ball needs to be. This is a problem that can be exacerbated by Nebraska running option routes, where the receiver can make a decision which way to break a route based on what the defense is showing. Both the receiver and the quarterback have to read the defense the same way for option routes to be successful.
Armstrong, of course, was pressed into service with the injury to Martinez and hasn’t had a tremendous amount of time to work with the receivers to develop an understanding. Through this season, and throughout the offseason, that understanding should be a priority for Armstrong.
There is little doubt that Armstrong is much more comfortable running the sprint option than Martinez ever was. While there is still a lot of room for improvement, the return of the option game has been welcomed by many Nebraska traditionalists. And given that it was an option that ultimately won the game against Michigan, clearly the play still has its value.
But its effectiveness really hasn’t been from Armstrong toting the rock. Armstrong has a total of 56 carries for 175 yards, giving him only a 3.13 yards-per-carry average. Nebraska’s offense (at least to this point) has been predicated on the quarterback being a rushing threat and forcing the defense to play 11-on-11. While Armstrong does not have the kind of game-breaking speed that Martinez does, he is a good enough athlete to be more effective as a runner than he has shown so far.
If you take a look at Armstrong’s split statistics, a disturbing trend becomes evident. Take a look at Armstrong’s passing statistics broken down by halves.
It’s not terribly surprising that a freshman quarterback would not be as successful in the second half, of course. Opposing teams will have the opportunity to dissect Nebraska’s offensive attack at halftime and devise new countermeasures. And the second half for Nebraska lately has been more than a little pressure-packed, putting even more pressure on a freshman just learning his way under center.
But if Armstrong wants to win the starting job next season, he will need to get his second-half statistics much closer in line with his first-half performance.
While the injury to Martinez has made things much more challenging for Nebraska in 2013, it will give NU a leg up in preparing for 2014. Absent injury, Armstrong should have nine starts under his belt after Nebraska’s bowl game this year.
He might need them. Johnny Stanton, a 6'2", 225-pound quarterback from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., redshirted this season and will be competing for the starting job in 2014. Senior quarterback Ron Kellogg III has a number of skills but is not a running threat. That means Kellogg will never be able to seriously threaten Armstrong for the starting position, as too much of Nebraska’s offense relies on a mobile quarterback.
Stanton won’t have that problem. Armstrong will get almost three-quarters of the 2013 season to learn the quarterback position. He might need that experience to hold Stanton off next spring, in what could shape up to be one of the most exciting offseason quarterback battles we’ve seen in Lincoln.
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