LINCOLN — Next man up.
One month into Nebraska's football season, Taylor Martinez's misfortune became Tommy Armstrong's opportunity. With Martinez sidelined for eight games this year with a toe injury, Armstrong — the redshirt freshman who drew raves on the scout team last year — gave Husker fans a glimpse of the future.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder from Cibolo, Texas, threw for 803 yards and ran for 176. He brought the traditional option back into NU's offense in a way Martinez hadn't. And he delivered a signature drive on a signature stage in Nebraska's 17-13 win at Michigan.
And Armstrong, like many of the freshmen the Huskers used this year, grew as the season wore on, coach Bo Pelini said.
“You just look at the difference in our freshmen who have played,” Pelini said. “Where they were a month-and-a-half ago, two months ago — and where they are now — is night and day.”
But Armstrong missed most of the last two games with an ankle injury aggravated early in the Penn State game. Fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg led the offense. Armstrong's progress slowed as he recouped from the minor setback.
“Him having the injury late in the year — limiting his reps practice-wise — kind of had an effect on him,” Pelini said.
Pelini doesn't allow reporters to watch workouts, but Armstrong left the Hawks Center practice field without a limp or heavy tape. If in-season form holds true and Armstrong stays healthy, he'll start Jan. 1 against Georgia in the Gator Bowl. Kellogg will get a few drives, as well.
When the two practiced Nebraska's offense in August, they were still operating in an attack at least partially tailored to Martinez's talents. Pelini conceded that two weeks of bowl practices may reorient some of NU's offense around Armstrong and Kellogg. Martinez is highly doubtful for the Gator Bowl.
“Going into the bowl game, I think we have the chance to be a little bit more multiple and kind of shape it a little more toward what Tommy does and what Ronnie does,” Pelini said. “But I also think that's what the offseason is going to be for. We'll have a little bit more bulk of work. We'll have a spring ball to have a quarterback competition and see what direction we want to lean toward in our offense.”
By virtue of his experience, Armstrong will be a prime factor in the competition. Though the Huskers' offense lost some momentum and efficiency after Martinez's injury — and Armstrong struggled with turnovers in several games, including the 41-28 loss to Michigan State — he was popular with teammates, who praised him for his leadership. So did offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
“How does he have the instinct for making that calm throw?” Beck said last month after the Huskers' win at Michigan. “How does he have the instinct to check to the right play? How does he have the instinct to know when to pull the read on the midline read where he split the guys and picked up 14 yards? It's the 'it' factor. He has 'it.' It just applies to all the things he does as a player and a person.”
Beck was not available for interviews after the regular season and isn't scheduled to talk at the Gator Bowl.
He said in November that he actively recruits the “it” factor, looking for the intangible while examining the rest of a quarterback's attributes. One of Armstrong main competitors in spring practice, Johnny Stanton, also has that “it” factor, Beck said. A 6-foot-2, 225-pounder who picked Nebraska over offers from Oregon and Wisconsin, Stanton redshirted his first year at NU, allowing a torn ACL he'd suffered the previous fall to completely heal.
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Players who redshirt, Pelini said, are on a more rigorous weight training program because their bodies don't take the usual wear-and-tear of a season. Senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles said in mid-December that Stanton “busts his tail in conditioning and in the weight room.”
“He's a strong kid,” Sirles said. “I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do for some competition next year.”
Armstrong and Stanton will be joined primarily by Grand Island walk-on Ryker Fyfe — who served in mop-up duty this season and likely would have played against Iowa had Kellogg gotten hurt — and true freshman Zack Darlington of Apopka, Fla.
Darlington finished high school classes Friday, will enroll at NU for the spring semester and expects to compete in spring practice after sitting out most of his senior year as a precaution following a concussion in the season opener.
Though Darlington — who picked the Huskers over Ohio State, among other schools — didn't play for most of the year, he took reps in practice daily, threw in Apopka's 7-on-7 drills and helped his dad, head coach Rick Darlington, coach the team to the Florida 8A state finals.
“I feel great,” Zack Darlington said in an interview Friday.
Even before Darlington's concussion, NU showed interest in signing a second quarterback for the 2014 class. Though Miami star Quinton Flowers has committed to South Florida, Pelini visited his high school in early December. The Huskers may have other quarterbacks on their radar, as well.