With the departure of A.J. Bush, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have three (technically four) quarterbacks heading into the upcoming 2016 season. The situation behind center is very fragile to put it lightly. Let’s review the Big Red’s signal-callers and how they can affect this year.
No. 1 – Tommy Armstrong: As goes Armstrong, so goes this Nebraska team. If the Blackshirts can put forth a Herculean effort and flip last season’s minus-12 turnover margin, and maybe take a few interceptions to the house, that’d certainly help. Regardless, it’d be for naught if Armstrong throws four interceptions in a game as he did versus Iowa in 2015.
Prior to Nebraska’s 37-29 victory over UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl, Armstrong made a special request to offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. He asked for Langsdorf to “treat me like a freshman in being able to criticize me and me being able to accept it.” That’s not the worst of ideas, given that he had just finished a regular season in which he threw the most picks in the Big Ten.
It’s time for a fresh start for No. 4, and that means tailoring an offense to what the staff knows he can do. Expect him to use his running ability far more this year, especially since sliding quarterbacks are now defined as defenseless players by rule. Play-action and rollout passes will likely be good friends of Armstrong’s. Not only does he flourish when passing outside the pocket, but being on the move gives him the opportunity to pick up big yards on the ground if no one’s open.
He has struggled in fall camp, throwing several interceptions, but keep in mind that his defensive teammates have already seen every formation, audible, and manner of trickeration. Let’s be real: Nebraska needs him to play in order to win the most. He has flaws, but he also has talents few defensive coordinators can lock down 100 percent of the time.
No. 2 – Ryker Fyfe: The positives about Fyfe are hard to come by. He did bulk up to 215 pounds, so he’s no longer the stick figure he was last season. Unfortunately, he still throws erratically and with no rhythm. He’ll hit a decent pass, then completely botch the next. He’ll run for a solid gain, then get sacked on the next play.
Those Cornhusker fans who remember last year’s 55-45 loss to Purdue – and I understand that could be few, since the level of alcohol consumption may have wiped it from their memories – will recall Fyfe lobbing 48 passes. Nebraska ran the ball only 29 times during that game. This tells me one of two things.
Either Purdue summoned the power of Thor and displayed one of the best performances of run defense in program history, or something was going on with Fyfe and his backs. Any team with a half-decent line (and Nebraska had one last year) could gain ground on the Boilermakers. They were ranked No. 109 in the FBS, giving up 215 yards per game last season.
Simply put, Fyfe is a questionable backup at best.
No. 3 – “Emergency QB” Zack Darlington: If you want a true Swiss Army knife, look no further than Darlington. He came into the program as a signal-caller, but moved to slot wide receiver and is now Nebraska’s new holder and E-QB (or emergency QB).
What does an E-QB do?
Darlington had an answer:
“If it came down to where Tommy was out, like the Purdue game last year, and say Ryker lost his helmet for a play and had to step out, rather than burning Patrick’s redshirt, I would just step in and maybe run a zone read or hand-off or something just to save Patrick until Ryker could get back in or Tommy could get back in.”
No. 4 – Patrick O’Brien: Tinfoil hat time!
Armstrong and Fyfe will definitely be Nos. 1 and 2 heading into the season, but what if – and humor me here – Armstrong absolutely tanks out of the gate? We’re talking interceptions (plural) against lowly Fresno State and Wyoming along with mistakes that put Nebraska in a hole against Oregon.
Fyfe isn’t going to be able to do any better. I can’t see Langsdorf putting in his E-QB for a situation like that, so the only conceivable option left would be to build towards the future.
O’Brien is a true freshman and has looked the part in practice. He’s throwing darts and — when necessary — balls with touch. However, he’s still working on chemistry with his receivers and getting play calls in. Development aside, he’ll compete for the starting spot next season with Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, who has two years of eligibility remaining.
If Armstrong truly can’t cut the mustard (or heaven forbid goes down very early in the season), it may be in Nebraska’s best interest to put No. 12 under center and see where the San Juan Capistrano (California) native can take the Big Red.