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Nebraska's Armstrong seeks balance between roles as athlete, leader

5/6/2015

Is this the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten? With NFL draft hopefuls, veteran returning starters and other intriguing prospects taking snaps around the league in 2015, it just might be. All week long, we're taking a closer look at some of this fall's most interesting Big Ten signal-callers ...

LINCOLN, Neb. -- As an athlete who happened to play quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr. has always used teammates as a model for success -- from his days with Malcolm Brown, en route to Texas out of high school in San Antonio, to two seasons alongside Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska.

From Brown and Abdullah, both recently off to the NFL, Armstrong learned much about the work ethic and other intangible qualities of a superior athlete.

But in Armstrong's transformation from an athlete who plays quarterback to a quarterback who happens to be a good athlete, time this spring with first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf proved invaluable for the rising junior.

In the wake of 15 spring practices, in fact, Armstrong discussed in depth with Riley how to best balance dual roles as an athlete and a leader within the team structure.

Riley assured Armstrong that he didn't have to be the best athlete on the team to serve as its leader -- a message that ran somewhat contrary to the quarterback's observations of Brown and Abdullah.

"Everybody has different ways of being a leader," Armstrong said. "Mine is to go out there and show guys that, no matter what, I'm going to fight until the end of the game. In every situation, I'm going to be that guy who pushes them to be the best they can be."

This realization, Armstrong said, offers him new freedom as he prepares for a third season in 2015 as the Huskers' top QB.

Armstrong remains intent to gain an edge with his athleticism. But it will not define him as a player.

Seventh in Nebraska history with 3,661 passing yards, Armstrong is 16-5 as a starter. He secured his position amid the coaching transition with a solid spring in the Huskers' new-look offense, featuring elements of the Riley-Langsdorf pro-style system from Oregon State and the former Nebraska spread attack.

Armstrong made headlines two months ago with his reference to a pre-spring conversation with Langsdorf, who told the quarterback he was "not going to be a running back" in the reshaped Nebraska offense. Armstrong, who rushed for 705 yards last season, in March recalled their talk with a confident tone, but he admitted after the spring that it made him nervous.

He didn't know what to expect. He does now.

"I've got a chance to understand the playbook and understand the footwork and technique and what they want out of me," Armstrong said. "It's getting better. It's a lot easier. My guys expect me to know a lot, to execute the right way. They always tell me when things get bad, don't force the ball. Just try to get a couple yards and don't take a big hit."

In other words, he can still be an athlete. Just don't get clobbered. According to Armstrong, Langsdorf suggested he watch the play of Russell Wilson -- an elite athlete who benefits from his unique skill set but understands exactly how far to go with it.

"The most important thing, when I'm out there running," Armstrong said, "is to protect my body."

Sure enough, the Huskers showed several familiar looks in the spring game, including the zone read with which Armstrong appeared most comfortable in accumulating 4,568 total yards -- 212 away from the top 10 in Nebraska history -- over the past two years.

Clearly, though, he's got more to give. Last season, Armstrong's 14.65 yards per completion ranked ninth nationally, ahead of Bryce Petty, Nick Marshall, Dak Prescott, Blake Sims, J.T. Barrett and Jameis Winston.

"He's got some great qualities about him," Riley said. "He's a well-respected guy on this team. ...Two years of that experience is really valuable.

"We've had fun with him because he's really an easy guy to be around. He's also really into it. This is a really, really important thing to him. That's been my experience with the quarterbacks we've had at Oregon State. They love it, they're all kind of gym rats, and Tommy's the same way."

Final exams conclude at Nebraska this week. Armstrong passed one big test already this spring. He said he'll start the summer months with a much more clear picture of his immediate future at quarterback.

No one at Nebraska wants to change him, he said. They simply want to bring out his best.