A new coaching staff.
No more Ameer Abdullah or Kenny Bell.
Those are the circumstances at Nebraska heading into the 2015 season. A team that ranked 19th nationally running the football has lost its workhorse. An offense that averaged 37.8 points per game is searching for weapons to replicate that total.
In his first season in Lincoln, Mike Riley will be bereft of much of the talent that surrounded Bo Pelini and the several nine-win seasons during his talent.
Despite the numerous missing pieces and positions still in question heading into the 2015 season, Riley will have talent and experience returning to the field at quarterback as Tommy Armstrong, Jr. enters his junior season at Nebraska.
His mechanics may need some tweaking and his consistency has been absent at times throughout his career, but Armstrong has the size and athleticism to be the offensive leader for Huskers moving forward.
In 2014, Armstrong threw for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns in route to Nebraska’s 9-4 season. Armstrong struggled in some of the Huskers’ bigger games, however, completing just 46 percent of his passes and tossing two interceptions in a 27-22 loss at Michigan State. In a 59-24 drubbing by Wisconsin, Armstrong completed just six of his 18 pass attempts.
Armstrong ended the year with perhaps his top performance to date in the Holiday Bowl against USC, completing 32 of his 51 passes for 381 yards and three touchdowns in the loss.
That late-December performance showed that Armstrong has the ability to be the primary producer for the Nebraska offense. If the Huskers want to enjoy the same success as they have in the past, the junior will have to be the focal point of an otherwise uncertain unit.
Nebraska’s cupboards haven’t been completely emptied out after the 2014 season. Two of the top three receivers from a season ago will return on the edges, serving as a reliable target for their quarterback.
Jordan Westerkamp and De’Morney Pierson-El ranked second and third in catches, yards and touchdowns behind Bell, combining for 67 receptions and nine touchdowns.
Some experience at the skill positions will slightly ease some of the burden from Armstrong, but the kid who has thrown 31 career touchdown passes in two years will still shoulder most of the weight in 2015.
Taking snaps in the starting role for the past two seasons, Armstrong won’t be in uncharted waters, but the emphasis placed on his performance and improvement from his sophomore season to his junior year may be a bit daunting.
The passer who has a career completion rate of 52.9 percent has to be more accurate. The quarterback whose touchdown to interception ratio is 3/2 through 21 games has to take better care of the football.
For Nebraska to be competitive, even in the Big Ten West, Armstrong has to execute as he did in the Holiday Bowl more frequently and minimize performances we saw in games against the Badgers and Spartans.
His quick legs and maneuverability allow him to be a legitimate threat to run the football, but the Huskers have to get more consistent through the air.
Armstrong is more than capable of providing that reliability, but it has to become more common.
Nebraska’s season won’t live or die by the effectiveness of the passing game, but wins and losses can be determined by how efficient its quarterback play is in 2015.
Armstrong is the most important player for the Cornhuskers this fall. His performance will have huge implications on whether Nebraska is competing for a Big Ten championship or falls to a middle-of-the-road conference team.