Nebraska Cornhuskers: Tommy Armstrong Jr.

Nebraska spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Nebraska.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Nebraska boasts an embarrassment of riches at running back: If there’s a better group of backs in the Big Ten, good luck to any defense tasked to stop it. The Huskers return the nation’s top yardage producer in Ameer Abdullah with a stacked group of runners behind him, led by Imani Cross.
  • Nathan Gerry’s position shift solidifies the secondary: After an inconsistent freshman season at linebacker, Gerry moved to safety, a more natural fit, and looked comfortable from the first practice. With Corey Cooper sidelined, Gerry and LeRoy Alexander more than held their own. That trio offers an upgrade over 2013.
  • The left side of the offensive line looks nasty: Jake Cotton at left guard already fits as the line’s leader. Cotton brings a mean streak. But the addition of Colorado transfer Alex Lewis at left tackle gives the Huskers an attitude that has long been missing up front.
Three questions for the fall

  • Who’s going to step up at linebacker?: Coach Bo Pelini challenged this group after the spring to find a big-time player or two. Nebraska has plenty of depth in the heart of its defense and a few potential stars in the making. But who’s going to do it now? Keep an eye on senior Zaire Anderson.
  • Who’s the backup QB?: Tommy Armstrong Jr. diffused the top storyline at the start of the spring by taking control at quarterback. While Johnny Stanton or Ryker Fyfe could still challenge Armstrong in August, their battle offers more intrigue. Stanton shows the higher ceiling, but Fyfe was more consistent through the spring.
  • Can the fun feeling carry over?: Pelini unveiled a side of his personality seen in the past only by Nebraska staffers and players. He was inviting and open to fun. The fall will surely bring a return of buttoned-up Bo, but can the lightened atmosphere of spring help the Huskers deal with scrutiny and pressure situations?
One way too early prediction

Nebraska’s streak of four-loss seasons will end in 2014. Six straight years of 9-4 or 10-4 have led to some feelings of unrest about the program’s direction. This is the year the Huskers move out of neutral. Will they shift into drive or reverse? The pieces are in place to make a run at the Big Ten title, but a stretch of five consecutive night games that starts on Sept. 13 at Fresno State could prove treacherous.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

Coach Bo Pelini left the Huskers with a message after Nebraska completed 15 practices over the past five weeks.

“The challenge I laid out to this football team is to move forward,” Pelini said. “If we don’t keep thinking about football, if we don’t attack it and we don’t keep continuing to work at it, to spend some time away from the facility, put themselves in position to keep learning and build, if we forget about football until August and just worry about the conditioning part of it, it won’t happen for this football team.”

Pelini’s words are as clear as a slap in the face. It’s not good enough to remain in good shape during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini is looking for team leaders to be serious about offseason workouts.
College players once went above and beyond by staying committed to a training regimen in the summer. Today, that’s only half the quest, especially at Nebraska, where mental aspects of the game have appeared, in recent years, to largely prevent a breakthrough back into the nation’s elite.

The Huskers struggled again last season in some areas of special teams. Turnovers were costly, too, as Nebraska finished minus-10 in its four losses. It was minus-11 for the season, 117th out of 126 nationally and one of two teams -- Cincinnati was the other -- to place among the bottom 57 while winning more than eight games.

“Everything’s out there,” Pelini said, “as far as I’m concerned, for this football team to achieve, but it won’t happen by chance. It won’t happen if we’re half in. We’ve got to have a group of guys who are absolutely all in to get done what we want to get done. I think they understand that.”

Pelini delivered his message with notable eloquence. The seventh-year coach, no doubt, has devoted considerable thought to this subject.

He’s looking for leaders within the team to repeat his words in May, June and July.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” senior receiver Kenny Bell said. “We did it this entire winter. The hard work doesn’t stop.”

Offensively, Bell and classmate I-back Ameer Abdullah at I-back, alongside senior linemen Jake Cotton and Mark Pelini, have formed a strong voice. They’re joined by sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in keeping Pelini’s message on the minds of the Huskers.

Armstrong, in particular, said he wants to continue to drill the importance of ball security through the offseason.

“I take all responsibility for it,” he said.

Armstrong said he believes the turnover problems were responsible for every Nebraska loss last year – a debatable assertion that, nonetheless, marks a step in the quarterback’s development as a leader.

“We can win all of our games if we take care of the football,” Armstrong said.

Teammates share similar confidence in the ability of Armstrong to lead.

“When you see it day in and day out, a guy putting your team in right positions, you have confidence,” junior I-back Imani Cross said. “That’s something we have in Tommy.”

Defensively, leadership remains more uncertain. Senior defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper are entrenched. Among the front seven, the Huskers look to junior Randy Gregory and veteran linebackers David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

The defenders hear the same message.

“I think everyone has to come together,” Anderson said, “and be committed to the team being able to make strides every day.”

It’s no easy task, Pelini said. Even this spring, he said, the Nebraska coaches saw various levels of commitment.

“There are some guys taking advantage of their opportunity and some who haven’t,” Pelini said.

“There are some guys who probably haven’t put the necessary time in. Bottom line, when that happens and I put on the film day after day and I see repeat errors, you send a message to us as coaches that it’s not important enough to you – either that or you don’t show the ability to be able to execute our football.”

The majority of the Huskers moved forward this spring, he said. The coach walked away from spring practice with a good feeling about his team and an understanding of areas in which Nebraska must improve.

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Red-White game began in truly unique fashion on Saturday as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini exited the locker room for the Cornhuskers’ traditional Tunnel Walk cuddling a cat.

In continuing a series of humorous moments related to his Twitter alter-ego, Pelini held the feline aloft seconds before the Huskers took the field for a scrimmage won by the offense, 55-46, over the defense before a crowd of 61,772 at Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTommy Armstrong Jr. still has work to do to solidify his hold on the starting quarterback role at Nebraska.
None of that means much to the Huskers in 2014. Here’s a look at what does matter from Saturday:

As suspected, this stable of I-backs might rate as Nebraska’s best in many years. With Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, on the sideline, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor put on quite a show. Cross, in particular, showed great skill on his six carries, netting 100 yards and two touchdowns. The junior produced scoring runs of 20 and 39 yards in the first half against the No. 1 defense. Cross flashed a few moves and, of course, the power that helped him rush for 447 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Newby gained 51 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield. The redshirt freshman Taylor rushed for 41 yards. He actually looked more impressive in other spring workouts. Each of the top four offer skills to help this offense.

The quarterback situation remains unsettled. Tommy Armstrong Jr. used this spring to solidify a once-tenuous hold on the No. 1 position, but he’s still not a lock to start on Aug. 30, when Florida Atlantic visits Lincoln. Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe displayed improvement through the 15 practices of March and April. Stanton, in particular, looks much more comfortable and in command of the offense in comparison to a month ago. If Armstrong slips, either backup is capable of snatching the job. Stanton threw for a team-high 135 yards and two scores on Saturday; Fyfe threw for 89. Neither QB was intercepted, and safety Nathan Gerry picked off Armstrong on the first drive of the day. Look past the numbers, though: Armstrong faced better competition. This position is about leadership. Because of his experience and overall poise, Armstrong has an edge. But watch the race for No. 2, and know the gap could be further sliced.

No obvious hole exists within the Nebraska defense. The Huskers looked strong at linebacker to start the spring. The results of Saturday did nothing to dispel that belief as Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and Josh Banderas -- a potential starting trio -- produced nice moments. Optimism comes from the growth of the secondary and the line. At safety, Gerry played well before suffering a shoulder stinger. LeRoy Alexander finished a solid spring at a position set to grow stronger with the return of Corey Cooper. Charles Jackson developed into a good option at the nickel spot. Up front, even without Randy Gregory on Saturday, the linemen held their own. Greg McMullen showed impressive pursuit of Armstrong on a sack. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins also appeared to play well.

Spring game preview: Nebraska

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
1:00
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A big crowd, as usual, is expected on Saturday as Nebraska wraps spring practice amid the annual festivities on campus that accompany the Red-White Game. Here’s a preview:

When: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

Admission: Reserved seats are $10. As of Wednesday, nearly 48,000 tickets had been sold. Youth in eighth grade or below receive free admission for participating in the Drug Free Pledge at halftime; a complimentary ticket is required. Free youth tickets are available only at the stadium ticket office.

TV: Big Ten Network (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET)

Weather forecast: Warm and possibly wet. A mix of clouds and sun is forecast, with a high of 82 degrees and wind from the south at 16 mph. The chance of rain is 60 percent during the day, with the potential for severe thunderstorms.

[+] EnlargePelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsBo Pelini will watch from the sidelines as his Cornhuskers close the spring with Red-White Game on Saturday.
What to watch for: First, know that the format is atypical. Coach Bo Pelini plans to roll out a scoring system that awards points to the offense and defense for good plays. There will be no Red and White teams, as in the past. The top offense will match against the No. 1 defense, No. 2 against No. 2 and so on. Leave the social scene outside the stadium a few minutes early, so you can get a grasp on the format before kickoff. An explanation will likely be displayed on the HuskerVision screens.

Nebraska opted for this change in order to protect its players from injury. With a roster of two teams, the Huskers would have been spread thin for the coaches' comfort level.

That said, you’ll see plenty of the top Huskers, minus returning All-Big Ten honorees Ameer Abdullah at I-back and defensive end Randy Gregory. They’ve done enough this spring.

Behind Abdullah, Nebraska features an exciting group of backs. Keep an eye on the expanded pass-catching role of Terrell Newby and the tantalizing combination of size and speed offered by redshirt freshman Adam Taylor.

Of course, the quarterbacks will draw many eyes. Watch how Tommy Armstrong Jr. commands the attention of teammates and shows a noticeable improvement over his redshirt freshman season in surveying the field. The performance on Saturday of Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe will serve as the last opportunity for nearly four months to impress coaches in their bid for the job of No. 2 QB.

Defensively, Josh Mitchell provides a vocal presence from his cornerback position. Alongside Mitchell, safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry have enjoyed breakout springs to help solidify the secondary. Corners Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell are locked in a battle, and Charles Jackson has appeared to finally come of age in taking control of nickel spot.

Up front, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have taken hold of the top spots in the interior and may give Nebraska its most talented pair of tackles in five years. Collins also shifts to the outside, where the Huskers are thin and have begun to look to linebacker Marcus Newby as an intriguing option to rush the passer.
Nebraska's big start to its 2015 recruiting class got even bigger Saturday with the addition of an ESPN Junior 300 quarterback.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska returned to spring practice on Monday after a 10-day break with a workout that pleased coach Bo Pelini.

“I thought the tempo was pretty good,” Pelini said after the ninth of 15 spring practices that culminate April 12 with the Red-White game at Memorial Stadium. “I thought the recall was pretty good. Like I told our guys, we’ve got to pick it up and finish up the spring the right way.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Lewis
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIAlex Lewis transferred to Nebraska from Colorado.
Pelini spoke publicly for the first time about the recent sentencing of junior offensive lineman Alex Lewis to 45 days in jail and two years of probation. Lewis, who transferred to Nebraska from Colorado last year, was convicted of misdemeanor assault for his role in a fight that involved an Air Force cadet last May in Boulder, Colo.

Lewis plans to serve the sentence after the spring semester ends in May. He was not allowed to join the team at Nebraska until January, conditions set by the school’s administration, Pelini said.

“He obviously made a mistake,” the coach said. “He’s paid dearly for that and he continues pay for that mistake.”

Lewis has “exceeded all expectations” since his arrival in Lincoln, according to Pelini.

“He’s done well academically,” Pelini said. “He’s done what he’s had to do away from football. And since he joined us in January, he’s done everything we asked of him. That’s all a kid can do.”

The terms of the sentence surprised Pelini after Lewis reached a plea deal in December that eliminated two felony charges.

“From the kid’s standpoint,” Pelini said, “you make the best of it and deal with the hand you’re dealt. I know he’ll handle it the right way.”

Lewis has taken hold of the top spot at left tackle in spring practice. Even before work began on the field, he earned the respect of his new teammates.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. said he was impressed in January as Lewis joined the quarterback in film sessions.

“He was ready to work,” Armstrong said. “I tried to put my hand on his shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you. You going to block for me next year or in the future. I’m going to have your back. You’re going to have my back.’”

Other news and notes from Nebraska practice on Monday:
  • Top safety Corey Cooper remained out with a foot injury. Reserve safety Drake Martinez also missed practice on Monday with an illness, and defensive end Joe Keels sat out.

  • Junior center Ryne Reeves practiced on Monday after he was hospitalized on March 19 following his injury in a drill. Reeves suffered from pain in his neck. “He checked out OK and felt good,” Pelini said. “I think the week off obviously helped him.”

  • Nebraska’s four-man combination at I-back continues to draw notice. The addition of redshirt freshman Adam Taylor to a group that already features the nation’s top returning rusher, Ameer Abdullah, in addition to Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, has caught the attention of many. “We have a stable of running backs that I feel great about,” Pelini said. “We’re going to have to use some of our ingenuity.” Offensive coordinator Tim Beck continues to consider options with multiback sets. “A lot of guys who can do a lot of different things to help us,” Pelini said. “It’s a good problem to have.” Count Abdullah among those happy with the depth. Taylor and Newby are “way ahead of where I was coming in,” Abdullah said. “I didn’t really consider myself a running back coming in. I was so raw. The game slows down so much as you get older.”


The best offenses are usually the ones with the best triple threats: a big-time quarterback, an elite running back and a go-to wide receiver.

So which Big Ten offenses have the most intimidating three-headed monsters on offense for 2014? Glad you asked. We're going to look at each team's top triple-threat combo and rank them in their divisions. First up: the Big Ten West.

1. Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell

The skinny: Yes, Armstrong still has a lot to prove as a full-time starting quarterback. But the Huskers have one of the best running backs in the country in Abdullah and a proven wideout in Bell. As you'll see, not every team in the division has that luxury. If Armstrong can simply be steady, the Nebraska offense should produce at a high level.

2. Wisconsin

QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon, RB Corey Clement

The skinny: Who emerges as the Badgers' top wide receiver is anyone's guess after the departure of Jared Abbrederis. But Wisconsin has shown the ability to pile up yards simply by running the ball, and the duo of Gordon and Clement has the potential to be really special if Clement makes the expected leap. Stave, however, needs to find more consistency -- assuming he even retains the starting job this season.

3. Northwestern

QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones

The skinny: The Wildcats have a chance to improve this standing if Mark is fully recovered from last season's injuries and if Siemian continues to develop as a passer. But they lack a true No. 1 wideout -- Jones had 54 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns, while Tony Jones caught 55 balls for 630 yards last season.

4. Iowa

QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

The skinny: Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes as a first-year starter and faces a bit of competition this spring from C.J. Beathard. The strength of the Hawkeyes' offense remains their running game, led by Weisman. Iowa needs more from its receivers, as the senior Martin-Manley led the team with just 388 receiving yards last season. Perhaps Damond Powell or Tevaun Smith can add some sizzle to the passing game.

5. Illinois

QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Martize Barr

The skinny: We trust offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to put together a potent attack this fall and probably make this ranking look way too low. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now, as Oklahoma State transfer Lunt hasn't even officially won the starting job and Barr is the top returning receiver despite posting just 246 receiving yards last season.

6. Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams

The skinny: Scoring in bunches wasn't exactly the Gophers' calling card last season. On the plus side, they do return a 1,200-yard back in Cobb, who will be joined by Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards in 2012) and incoming top recruit Jeff Jones to form a deep backfield. But the passing game was one of the least productive in the FBS last season and needs major steps forward from Leidner and young receivers like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.

7. Purdue

QB Danny Etling, RB Akeem Hunt, WR DeAngelo Yancey

The skinny: The Boilers averaged a putrid 14.9 ppg last season, though the potential for better things is there with true sophomores Etling and Yancey. The running game simply has to get better, however, as Hunt led the team with just 464 yards on the ground in 2013.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- For the first 2½ years of his career at Nebraska, Givens Price heard voices.

Voices at practice. Voices in the meeting room. Voices when he entered the playing rotation at guard in the second half of last season as injuries nearly decimated the offensive line.

Five senior offensive linemen in 2013 -- gone from Nebraska after starting a combined 127 games in their careers -- spoke to Price even when he stood alone on the sideline.

“We are the voices now,” Price said on Monday.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIZach Sterup (57) and Ryne Reeves (65) are among those competing for spots on the Huskers O-line.
The Huskers are rebuilding the line this spring. Through six practices, improvement is steady, according to the linemen and the quarterback they protect, sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr.

“They’re going to get better,” Armstrong said. “We’re expecting that. At the same time, you’ve got to understand that sometimes mistakes are going to happen. They’re all out there to win a spot. They’re all out there to improve and push each other. They come out there and they’re ready to work.”

Despite the departures, Nebraska returns experience, primarily in left guard Jake Cotton, a senior who started 11 games last season. Others show notable promise, and the line, as a group, appears just as physically impressive as the 2013 cast.

Perhaps more impressive, in fact.

“We’ve got to get the mental side down,” Cotton said, “if we want the size to matter.”

Six practices into this spring, Cotton at left guard and junior Zach Sterup at right tackle appear most entrenched. Price has taken the majority of snaps at right guard, though senior Mike Moudy, out with a shoulder injury this spring, figures to compete for the job in August.

At center, senior Mark Pelini and junior Ryne Reeves are splitting time. And at left tackle, Colorado transfer Alex Lewis, a junior who has emerged as a top spring storyline, and redshirt freshman David Knevel, continue to compete.

“I think our whole room is full of competitors,” Cotton said “Some of the guys have come so far in [two weeks]. I wouldn’t have guessed it would go this fast.”

Many of the new candidates to start received an unexpected jump start last season.

With seniors Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick set to anchor the line, all appeared settled.

But after Long, an offensive captain and All-Big Ten pick in 2012, went down with a knee injury in early October, the injuries mounted. Moudy started three games in place of Long at right guard before the shoulder injury hit.

Cotton missed two games with a knee injury. Sirles and Pensick also missed practice time, forcing position shifts among the experienced linemen and youngsters like Reeves, Sterup, Pelini and Price into action.

Production suffered. Nebraska averaged 42.4 points and 291.6 rushing yards in the five games before Long’s injury; after, it was 25.4 and 168.2.

Still, Armstrong credits the veteran linemen, especially Cotton, with easing the quarterback's transition into the lineup.

“They all sat me down and said, ‘Hey, this is your time,’” Armstrong said. “’We saw how you practiced. Just go out there and have fun. We’re going to have your back 100 percent of the way.’ Jake Cotton said, ‘You’re the guy we want right now, and you’re the guy we need.'

“He told me we were going to win games, and that’s what we did.”

Armstrong finished 7-1 as a starter last season, including a win over Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

Now it’s his turn to help nurture the young linemen.

The play of Lewis at left tackle grabbed Armstrong’s attention this spring. At 6-foot-6 and 290 pounds, Lewis, who started 12 games at Colorado in 2012, has meshed well with Cotton to help protect the QB’s blind side.

Lewis and Cotton, to put in nicely, make their presence known on the practice field.

“That’s double trouble right there,” Armstrong said. “They work hard. They’re outgoing. They’re rowdy. They just keep going.”

Cotton said the group is quickly developing a chemistry.

“You go the extra step to make sure guys are on the same page,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s just something about having open spots, with nothing guaranteed, that’s fun, because the competition is heated. Guys are gunning for spots.”

It will, no doubt, intensify in August as Moudy returns. Also set to join the mix are Nick Gates, D.J. Foster and Tanner Farmer, the most heralded group of linemen signees in coach Bo Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska. Another rookie, Mick Stoltenberg, could fit on the offensive or defensive line.

Regardless of the personnel, they’ll work without the guidance of veterans like Long and Sirles.

“Nothing stops,” Price said. “We’ve got to pick up from where they left off. The dream they had is still the dream we have -- that’s to make it to the Big Ten championship and win the Big Ten championship. It starts in spring football.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- With youth aplenty at quarterback and along the offensive line for Nebraska, coordinator Tim Beck understandably simplified some aspects of his system this spring.

Terminology has been reduced. But according to quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., that doesn't make the offense any less potent.

According to Armstrong, one focus involves better communication away from the practice field. He said the offensive players have spent more time this spring in multi-position group meetings.

“That’s the best thing for us,” Armstrong said, “making sure we’re all on the same page.”

The Huskers conducted their first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Armstrong said it went well for the offense, considering that they conducted just four practices before the scrimmage.

“We did well,” he said. “We moved the ball. That’s a good sign, being a week and a half into spring ball with a bunch of young guys and going against an experienced defense.”

Nebraska showcased its depth at I-back in the scrimmage. Alongside returning All-Big Ten senior Ameer Abdullah, junior Imani Cross, sophomore Terrell Newby and redshirt freshman Adam Taylor have impressed teammates and coaches.

Taylor’s combination of talents intrigues Armstrong.

“He’s been working,” the sophomore QB said. “He shows it in the weight room, off the field and on the field. He’s strong, he’s physical, and he goes out there and runs hard.”

Also from Nebraska’s practice on Monday:

• Junior Taariq Allen has appeared to form a nice chemistry with Armstrong this spring. Allen caught three passes last season -- all against Michigan State -- before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“He’s come back strong,” Armstrong said. “I give him respect for that.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Allen showed well in the scrimmage. His emergence might help the Huskers account for the loss of Quincy Enunwa, who caught a school-record 12 touchdown passes as a senior in 2013.

“I’m not even worried about a starting spot,” Allen said. “I’m worried about being who I am and just going out there and playing, showing the coaches that I’m back.”

• The Huskers will return practice again on Wednesday for their seventh workout of the spring. A Thursday night scrimmage is planned before the team scatters for spring break. Practices resume March 31.


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has completed three practices -- 20 percent of its spring workload -- with five sessions set for the next week before a weeklong break. Yes, it goes fast at this time of year.

Already, storylines are taking shape. Here are a few of the most interesting topics from the opening week:
    [+] EnlargeNebraska
    Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. has seized control of the quarterbacks group and taken the most reps with the first team so far this spring.
  • Tommy Armstrong Jr. is taking charge. Perhaps even more than expected, Armstrong has embraced his new role as leader of the quarterbacks. Nebraska coaches have made it clear in practice that he’s the man. Armstrong receives the majority of repetitions with the No. 1 offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton is a clear No. 2, and the experiment with Jamal Turner largely fizzled out after two practices. Sure, Turner may still factor in packages next fall, but Armstrong looks like the man for the job to direct this offense after starting eight games a redshirt freshman.

  • Look everywhere for leadership. Sure, teammates look to seniors like Ameer Abdullah, Jake Cotton, Kenny Bell and Corey Cooper. Josh Mitchell has emerged in the secondary. The defensive linemen watch Randy Gregory. Michael Rose, though just a sophomore, is a natural as quarterback of the defense. But key figures on the practice field come from all backgrounds. For example, senior linebacker Trevor Roach and junior receiver Sam Burtch, both of whom came to Nebraska as walk-ons, show up often in practice as two of the Huskers’ hardest workers. Teammates notice them too. Their work ethic makes a difference.

  • As advertised at linebacker. As soon as the full pads came out on Wednesday, the intensity increased. And Nebraska’s linebackers made their presence known. Tackling was not on the agenda, but that didn’t stop senior Zaire Anderson from delivering a few big hits. Anderson looks ready to make the most of his final season. Rose and David Santos have grown comfortable in their roles, and Josh Banderas has settled into a versatile spot. Coach Bo Pelini said the linebackers, as a group, have progressed to “another galaxy” from a year ago. Just wait until redshirt freshmen Courtney Love and Marcus Newby settle into roles.

  • Keep an eye of the young safeties. Even without Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler last season who’s fighting a foot injury, the duo in the middle of the secondary rates as one of the most promising on the field. Sophomores Nathan Gerry and LeRoy Alexander have worked with the top defense. Both showed flashes a year ago and bring excellent athleticism. Behind them, though, redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton appear just as talented. If new secondary coach Charlton Warren harnesses the potential of these safeties, he may have a special group on his hands by the end of 2014.

  • A crowded backfield. The nation’s top returning rusher doesn’t need to fear for his starting spot. In fact, Abdullah’s prowess is something to behold. But the guys behind him aren’t getting complacent. Top backup Imani Cross, who scored a team-high 10 touchdowns last season, has added weight to more resemble his shape as a freshman two years ago. Terrell Newby looks ready to assume a more important job, particularly as a pass catcher. And the new guy to the mix, redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, might possess the best mix of physical attributes of any back in the group. The Huskers want to get creative with personnel groupings, so don’t be surprised to see more of the two-back sets next seasons.

We've reached October in our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip. Keep in mind this is basically pure fantasy because of budget limitations (but if you guys want to contribute to a Kickstarter to get us out to the biggest games every week, well, we wouldn't be opposed).

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here's our menu of selections for Week 6:

North Texas at Indiana
Nebraska at Michigan State
Michigan at Rutgers
Ohio State at Maryland
Purdue at Illinois
Wisconsin at Northwestern

Open date: Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Well, this one's a no-brainer. While it might be fun to watch Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers play host to the two most storied names in league history, you just can't beat Huskers-Spartans for competitive and entertainment purposes. They are the only two teams to ever represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game, and now they'll be playing a cross-division, East-West matchup that could have a huge impact on who gets to Indianapolis this December.

This has been a pretty good series in the last three years, with Nebraska unexpectedly dominating the Spartans at home in 2011, the Huskers pulling off a miracle comeback in East Lansing in 2012 and Michigan State exacting revenge in Lincoln last year in a wild, turnover-filled game. I'd pay money just to watch Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun on the same field. Then you've got Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford at tailback, two of the more interesting young quarterbacks in the league in Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong Jr. and what could be two of the conference's best defenses, if Nebraska's young talent continues to develop.

I didn't have to think twice about this one. Adam, should I save a spot for you at Crunchy's, or will you be checking out one of those titanic tilts in Bloomington or Champaign?

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Crunchy's? Yes, please. And before that, we can stop by The Peanut Barrel, where sources tell me colleague Jesse Palmer once ordered the rod-ay-o burger and was rightly panned. I considered staying home for Wisconsin-Northwestern, especially because my son turns 1 a few days later, but I'll be back in plenty of time for a birthday he certainly won't remember.

Although this game loses a bit of luster because it's no longer within the Legends Division (tear), the teams and the storylines make up for it. I've never seen a Michigan State-Nebraska contest and don't want to miss a key game for both squads. You've got two potential All-America candidates at defensive end in Calhoun and Gregory. Abdullah faces a new-look defensive front seven, but one that should still be pretty solid despite departures at both defensive tackle and linebacker. Nebraska has given Michigan State's defense some trouble in recent years, and the Huskers will feature a dual-threat quarterback, whether it's Armstrong, Johnny Stanton or wide receiver Jamal Turner, who has been taking snaps at QB this spring. Cook and the Big Ten's most improved receiver corps take aim at a Nebraska secondary trying to reload after losing two all-conference cornerbacks (Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans).

The game could be a preview of the Big Ten championship, and I've yet to see Michigan State play in this series. There's something about Nebraska that brings us together, Bennett. Meet you in Sparta.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State, Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Today's installment: Nebraska.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Competition means something different to everyone.

It’s a battle for some; for others, a necessity.

For Tommy Armstrong Jr., competition is a way of life. He embraced it last season when many might have withered, grasping the top quarterback job at Nebraska as a redshirt freshman in place of injured, career-long starter Taylor Martinez.

Armstrong fought consistency but came out on top, winning his final start against Georgia in the Gator Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesWith eight starts under his belt, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is intent on being Nebraska's starting quarterback in 2014.
And that’s when Kenny Bell was sure about Armstrong.

“You know guys who have that fire inside,” said Bell, a rising senior and the Huskers’ top wide receiver.

Notably, Bell points to I-back Ameer Abdullah, the top returning rusher nationally.

“In my mind, he’s the best running back in the country,” Bell said. “Tommy has that same kind of fire.

“I love Tommy. I’m all in with Tommy. I’ve got nothing but faith in the kid. What he showed me against Georgia, he might not make every perfect read or every perfect play, but the kid will compete. That’s what I care about. That’s most important to me -- guys who genuinely care about this team and compete with everything they have. That’s what I love and respect about Tommy.”

Spring practice began at Nebraska on Saturday with an open quarterback competition among Armstrong, redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, senior wide-receiver convert Jamal Turner and walk-on sophomore Ryker Fyfe.

Seventh-year coach Bo Pelini said he doesn’t classify the sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games and threw for 966 yards in 2013, in the same category as returners such as Bell or Abdullah.

Realistically, though, Armstrong owns the inside track to start next fall. And he doesn’t plan to give an inch.

“Everything’s a competition,” Armstrong said on Monday after the Huskers’ second of 15 practices this spring. “Anything can happen. Last year, my number was called. This year, I’m the No. 1 guy right now, and I just want to keep that.”

The confident Texan completed 51.9 percent of his throws (68 of 131) and threw nine touchdowns. He also tossed eight interceptions and lost two fumbles.

Freshmen stuff, Armstrong said.

He often repeated mistakes within a game.

“It was a domino effect,” he said.

No more. Armstrong says he is smarter and more in control. He’s poised to serve as a leader of the quarterbacks despite his tenuous position among the group.

Looking back, he said, he wasn’t nearly as ready for last season -- just 15 months out of high school -- as he thought at the time of his first start in September. The competition fueled him.

“Last year it was just a thing that happened,” Armstrong said. “But this year, I’m trying to work as hard as I can to become the No. 1 guy and keep that in control, become better at the game, become better at what I did last year.”

Important people back him. And not just Bell.

“He’s a very confident kid,” said Abdullah, returning for his senior season after rushing for 1,690 yards in 2013. “It doesn’t take you long to see that ... We have a lot of faith in him. I expect a lot out of Tommy.”

Abdullah described Armstrong, six months after his first start, as a “guy with influence” among the Huskers.

“We need him to be a leader,” Abdullah said. “All the guys look up to him, because, let’s face, he touches the ball every play.”

Abdullah won’t let Armstrong rest of his accomplishments. After all, he's not alone in Lincoln as an accomplished quarterback.

Stanton, a state-champion QB from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., earned co-MVP honors at the prestigious Elite 11 competition in the summer of 2012.

Stanton seems to enjoy a good competition, too. So far, like Armstrong a year ago, he’s fighting to prove himself.

Armstrong shared a close relationship last season with senior Ron Kellogg III.

It’s not like that with Stanton.

“We like competing,” Armstrong said. “That’s just how we were taught, growing up when it comes to our football, where we’re from. Texas is big-time football; California is big-time football. That’s the competitive nature of both of us.”

Turner, who came to Nebraska as a quarterback three years ago, adds another element to the mix.

“One thing I try to bring is that swag,” he said. “Everyone else can see that and play a little harder -- play with the swag that I have.”

Armstrong and Stanton directed state championship runs in their home states, as did true freshman Zack Darlington in Florida two years ago. Darlington joined the Huskers in January. Classmate A.J. Bush plans to enroll in August. He won a state title last fall in Georgia.

Clearly, Pelini likes the winning pedigree and the competition it breeds.

“I want each guy to worry about making themselves better each and every day,” he said. “That’s the key. Don’t worry about where you’re repping, who you’re repping with or anything else. Try to play efficient, winning football.

“I think they’re all guys who are athletic. They have the tools to get it done. But across the board, they’ve got a lot to learn.”
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Jamal Turner said he watched Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning fellow Texan, during the past two seasons, and the Nebraska receiver wondered if he had missed his chance.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
AP Photo/Nati HarnikA receiver for his three seasons at Nebraska, Jamal Turner has moved back to his high school position of quarterback this spring.
Turner listened as his coaches talked of using him to throw passes on trick plays. Then he sat by, struggling with injuries, as opportunities went to teammates.

“This is my time,” the senior said Monday after the Huskers’ second practice of the spring.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck informed Turner not long after the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl victory of the decision to try him as a quarterback, the position at which he starred in high school.

Though Turner struggled on Monday, he’s in it to win the position.

If he can’t outplay returning eight-game starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. and redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, Turner said he would return to receiver.

“And if they need any depth at the quarterback position,” he said, “they always have me.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes in the past three seasons, but he’s failed to meet the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival in Lincoln as a heralded prospect in the spring of 2011. Rated as the No. 6 athlete nationally out of high school, he played QB for a short time in his first spring at Nebraska.

The move back to his old position has not been easy.

“You just have so much stuff going through your head,” Turner said. “I can read blitzes and I can read coverages. It’s when there’s so much on your plate.

“I need to get what we’re doing first."

Basic plays have given him trouble.

"I should be getting these things down," he said. "I should know these things.”

It's time to watch more film, Turner said. He’s studied plenty since January, learning concepts and the significant changes to terminology in the structure of Nebraska’s offense.

Armstrong welcomes the competition.

“It’s tough for him right now because of the simple fact that he’s playing (receiver) and he’s playing quarterback,” Armstrong said. “I give him props, because that’s hard.”

Turner is confident, he said, that he’ll make strides this spring.

“I have to remember I’m in charge of the offense,” he said, “and what I say, everyone’s going to do, so I have to make sure it’s right.”

The Huskers return to practice Wednesday.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- How’s this for a surprise on the opening day of spring football practice? Nebraska has a new quarterback.

Well, Jamal Turner is not new; the 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior caught 60 passes over the past three seasons. And he has played quarterback -- in high school.

[+] EnlargeJamal Turner
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJamal Turner will workout at both receiver and quarterback this spring.
Turner shared time at QB on Saturday with several others behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. as the Huskers completed the first of 15 spring practices at their indoor practice facility.

Coach Bo Pelini said Nebraska plans “significant reps” for Turner in March and April.

Turner has tried the position in the past at Nebraska, Pelini said, but never in such an expanded role.

“This spring is a time for us to experiment and maybe take it to a different level," Pelini said. "He likes it. He thinks he’s [NFL quarterback] Russell Wilson. Jamal isn’t lacking for confidence.

“I thought he handled some things pretty well. He was further ahead than I thought he’d be. But when you play wideout, you kind of get how the offense runs.”

Turner also spent time at receiver on Saturday. He accounted for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career at Arlington (Texas) Sam Houston.

Armstrong performed well on Saturday with the top offensive unit. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton also worked at the position in addition to walk-ons Ryker Fyfe and Tyson Broekemeier. Freshman Zack Darlington, who joined the team in January, wore a green jersey to restrict contact in his first workout.

Senior I-back Ameer Abdullah said he liked the element that Turner adds.

“We’re just trying every new wrinkle we can to make this offense more dynamic,” Abdullah said.

Pelini said he was pleased with the opening day.

“I liked the tempo, the enthusiasm,” the seventh-year coach said. “Obviously, different guys are at different levels right now, as far as their knowledge, but I thought it was a good start.”

The Huskers have installed changes this spring to terminology and other logistics in an attempt to simplify aspects of the offense.

Pelini said he expected more mistakes than occurred.

“I was surprised how smooth it went,” he said. “There were very few missed assignments and alignment errors.”

Other Notes

Secondary matters: Senior safety Corey Cooper, Nebraska’s top tackler in 2013, sat out on Saturday with turf toe, Pelini said. Cooper suffered the injury last week in a conditioning drill.

“I’m not going to push Coop at this time of year,” Pelini said. “We want to make sure he’s 100 percent.”

Sophomores LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry, a converted linebacker, played safety with the top defense in Cooper’s absence.

Pelini said the Huskers used juniors Charles Jackson and Byerson Cockrell, a newcomer out of junior college, at nickel, the spot manned last season by versatile defender Ciante Evans. Junior Jonathan Rose performed well at cornerback opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell.

Getting bigger: All-Big Ten defensive end Randy Gregory has made important strides in recent weeks, Pelini said, as the junior attempts to add weight.

The 6-6 Gregory, who recorded 10 sacks last season, looked especially thin in January. But Gregory is back up to about 235 pounds, the coach said.

“His offseason has only begun,” Pelini said. “He’s got a long way to go before we play a game.

“Every day is important for Randy to get bigger.”

Time to reflect: Senior receiver Kenny Bell caught 52 passes for 577 yards last season and remains on track to shatter school records in both categories.

He’s not resting on his accomplishments, though.

“I was disappointed in my year last year, for selfish reasons," Bell said. "I wanted to perform better.”

Bell’s production dropped from his sophomore season, when he caught 50 passes for 863 yards and a career-best eight touchdowns.

“I had a lot of time to self-reflect and think about it over these past three months,” he said.

Spring football is often unenjoyable, Bell said, but he’s determined to improve.

“I’m here to work, definitely. I want to win football games with my team. I want to do something that hasn’t been done here in a long time, and that’s win a conference championship."

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