LINCOLN — The walking boot on quarterback Taylor Martinez's left foot last week told the story. Nebraska's record-setting quarterback had a temporary busted wheel and one of his backups — Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg — would likely get the start against South Dakota State.
The smart money, in a sense, was on Kellogg, the fifth-year senior who knows the playbook as well as or better than any other Husker. He's Martinez's best friend and roommate. The “ultimate backup quarterback,” according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The sensible pick. Beck even watched Kellogg, aware of this chance, take his practice game above its usual efficiency in a bid to start.
Still, by Thursday, Armstrong — the redshirt freshman whose skills (athletic, intangible and otherwise) had drawn raves since his arrival in the summer of 2012 — had inched ahead.
“Tommy went out and did his deal,” said Beck, a little of his Texas high school coaching days working into his answer. Armstrong said after the 59-20 win over SDSU that he had learned he was starting through the media. He couldn't sleep Friday night. Beck said Armstrong seemed “a little nervous” before kickoff Saturday.
But with Nebraska's defense starting as flat as a blown tire, Armstrong did his deal again, coolly leading the Huskers to two first-quarter touchdowns, keeping pace with a Jackrabbit offense dashing through the Blackshirts.
“They scored right after we did, and I told (the defense), 'Hey, don't worry about it. We are going to go down and score,' ” Armstrong said. The Huskers did.
Armstrong threw for 169 yards and ran for 38. His lone hiccup, in a sparkling first start, was a fumble that he recovered. Beck wasn't stunned by the overall performance. Nobody in red, in fact, seemed to be.
“He's just a gamer,” Beck said. “That's what he is. He thrives in situations like this.”
Confidence. The cool hand. Mojo. Moxie. Whatever word or phrase you want to put on him, Armstrong's coach at Cibolo (Texas) Steele High School, Mike Jinks, could see it forming before he ever started the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder at quarterback.
“Sophomore year, we started him at outside linebacker,” said Jinks, a former Division II quarterback who's now the running backs coach at Texas Tech. “He did great. And looking back, we should have played him at quarterback that year, too. I might have another ring.”
Jinks would get his ring in 2010, when Armstrong started as a junior and led Steele, located just north of San Antonio, to a title in Class 5A, the largest in Texas. Though Steele was loaded with stars — including Texas running back Malcolm Brown and Oklahoma State linebacker Ryan Simmons — Armstrong was the unquestioned, “ultra-competitive” leader, Jinks said.
Armstrong said learning how to lead such a strong team prepared him for the same task at Nebraska. He mentioned learning from Brown and defensive lineman Marquis Anderson, who's in junior college after leaving Oklahoma.
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“Those guys taught me how to be a leader,” Armstrong said. “Coming up here, it wasn't anything new for me to be a young guy and have a bunch of seniors on the offensive line as well as juniors and seniors out wide at receiver.”
Whenever Steele needed a play, Jinks said, Armstrong made it. With his arm or his feet. Whether he was scrambling around or chasing a loose fumble.
After that junior year, Armstrong attracted several offers — from Nebraska and others such as Southern Mississippi, Missouri and Oregon. Big 12 schools in Texas were cool, Jinks said, in part because they weren't sure how much of Cibolo Steele's success was Brown's running skills or Armstrong's talent. Jinks estimated that Armstrong took 80 percent of his junior-year snaps under center.
“They had no clue,” Jinks said. “People had a lot of questions about what his skill set was, not knowing that we practiced, on a consistent basis, out of the shotgun. I got a chance to see what his footwork was. Pretty polished.”
Armstrong took 80 percent of his senior-year snaps out of the shotgun, Jinks said. He was Steele's best runner, so Jinks asked Armstrong to run lead plays along with throwing out of the gun. Armstrong amassed 3,226 total yards and 45 total touchdowns as a senior, and he led Steele back to the 5A title game.
A lot of the schools that had shied away from Armstrong, Jinks said, suddenly wanted a seat at the table. But Armstrong had already committed to Nebraska.
A knee injury suffered last fall clinched NU's decision to redshirt Armstrong. In this year's spring game, he threw for 102 yards and a touchdown on just seven attempts. During the summer, coaches preached to him and others to “capitalize” on every snap.
“When our number is called,” Armstrong said, “we always have to set the tone.”
Just before training camp, though, Armstrong had surgery on the same knee he'd hurt the fall before. Coach Bo Pelini called it a “clean-up” procedure. In an interview Armstrong gave after his debut against Southern Mississippi, he admitted the knee surgery had slowed his progress and drained a bit of that overflowing confidence.
In the two weeks before his start, though, Pelini and Beck said they saw a big jump in Armstrong's play. His running talent — cultivated in that senior year at Steele, though not necessarily on option plays — emerged again.
Coaches knew he already had an affinity for leadership. Armstrong doesn't shy away from describing it, either.
“Me, I talk a lot, honestly,” Armstrong said. “I like to talk to the offensive line. We go back and forth when things go bad. You just have to be a leader and be able to speak to them.”
Jinks — busy helping coach Texas Tech to its fourth straight win to start the year — didn't get to see Armstrong's game live. He saw highlights. He saw Armstrong's 16-yard touchdown pass to Sam Burtch. He said he couldn't be happier — or less surprised.
“It's natural for him,” Jinks said. “He's an all-around tough guy.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after Wednesday's practice
Video: Wide receiver Kenny Bell after Wednesday's practice
Video: Defensive end Randy Gregory after Wednesday's practice
Video: The Big Ten Preview Show, Sept. 25
Video: The Big Red Today Show, Sept. 24