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Thursday, November 14, 2013
Huskers find born leader in freshman QB

By Mitch Sherman

LINCOLN, Neb. -- There’s a cold-blooded side to Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong.

You saw it in the final minutes last week as the Huskers rallied behind him to beat Michigan on the road.

You hear it as he talks. Armstrong’s confidence, for a redshirt freshman thrust into a starting role, is unusual, even striking in how it resembles a Nebraska legend.

Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Tommy Armstrong has what his coaches call the "it factor" and is one of just three QBs in Nebraska history to win their first five starts.
Armstrong walks on the edge -- with his words and in his play.

Of Michigan State, which enters Memorial Stadium on Saturday with the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, Armstrong said, “they can be beat.”

Sure, but beaten by injury-plagued Nebraska, which has sputtered in recent weeks against defensive units far inferior to the Spartans?

“Our offense,” he said, “when we’re clicking, I don’t think anybody in the country can stop us.”

Armstrong turned 20 last week. He has much to learn about the Big Ten and college football. But this much we know, after five starts: The kid commands respect. His presence instills a belief among teammates.

He embraces leadership. Armstrong carries himself like a veteran. He said he feels like a captain in his first season of action.

Armstrong, according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck, has the “it factor.”

“How do you describe that?” Beck said. “How do you describe that he has that instinct for running the option? How does he have the instinct for making that calm throw? How does he have the instinct to check to the right play?”

“He has it,” Beck said. “It just applies to all the things that he does as a player and as a person.”

Listen to the Huskers.

“He’s mature beyond his years,” senior offensive tackle Brent Qvale said. “No situation is too big for him. It’s something you need in your quarterback. I love his poise. I love how he handles himself.”

Said junior I-back Ameer Abdullah: “He isn’t a young guy any more. He’s a leader. … He says the right things when they need to be said.”

And from senior fullback C.J. Zimmerer: “We trust him with everything now. He’s our guy, and we’re going to go with him ‘til the end.”

Armstrong inherited a difficult situation, taking over for injured senior Taylor Martinez, the starter since his redshirt freshman year in 2010. Fellow senior Ron Kellogg III, seemingly a friend to everyone, including Armstrong and Martinez, eased the transition.

But Armstrong made this work.

A week after he threw a costly, fourth-quarter interception against Northwestern, Armstrong watched Jordan Westerkamp -- the hero alongside Kellogg against the Wildcats -- drop a punt in a moment similar to Armstrong’s mistake.

Armstrong said he rushed to Westerkamp on the sideline. The quarterback told him the Huskers would get it done, that they would drive for a winning score. After a Michigan field goal, Armstrong made good on his word.

He completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards on the final march. He checked to a fourth-and-2 throw that gained 26 yards. He improvised an option call at the goal line, cooking up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Abdullah for the winning points.

So what happens against Michigan State?

“Tommy Armstrong is not going to be intimidated,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “That much I know.”

Armstrong has given his teammates reason to follow him.

He’s had help, for sure, but only two other Nebraska quarterbacks won their first five starts -- Martinez and Brook Berringer, who won nine straight as a junior after playing behind Tommie Frazier for two years.

Frazier, in fact, was the original cold-blooded Nebraska quarterback.

He won national championships. The talent around him was remarkable. He was a once-in-a-generation combination of skill and savvy, determination and confidence.

And of all who played the position over the past two decades in Lincoln, Armstrong’s athletic and intellectual makeup appears to resemble no one more closely than Frazier.

It’s not a fair comparison, Tommy and Tommie.

Gotta figure the kid likes it.