When you think about quintessential Nebraska playmakers, you think about two specific kinds of players: option quarterbacks and powerhouse tailbacks.
You think about quarterbacks Tommy Frazier and Eric Crouch, and you thing about tailbacks Mike Rozier and Ahman Green. You think about Nebraska teams that didn’t just beat their opponents, but completely dominated them—the 1994 team that blitzed through its schedule en route to legendary coach Tom Osborne’s first national championship; the 1995 team that won a second straight title by annihilating Florida in the Fiesta Bowl; the 1997 team that that won Osborne’s third title by crushing yet another SEC team, this time Tennessee, in the Orange Bowl.
It was a simple formula—one that served the great Osborne so very well during his 24-year tenure. Indeed, by the time Osborne stepped aside in 1997, he had compiled an overall record of 255-49-3, won 12 Big Eight championships, one Big 12 championship and three national championships. He is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game–and at the time of his retirement, the Huskers program was one of the best in the nation.
The offensive system that he built was a big reason why.
Then he retired and everything kind of went to hell.
No, Nebraska has not been a bad program in the post-Osborne era. But it’s certainly never reached the same heights that it did under the man who continues to define Husker football. The stunning fall of the once dominant Blackshirts is one big reason why, of course; but so, too, has been the inability of the Huskers to evolve offensively in a way that would allow them to both be true to their power-football roots and help them compete in a college football landscape that has changed dramatically since Osborne last stalked the sidelines.
Enter Mike Riley, formerly of Oregon State, who now takes on the challenge that proved too great for Frank Solich, Bill Callahan and, most recently, Bo Pelini. Riley arrives in Lincoln with the reputation as a good offensive mind with a proven track record of tutoring quarterbacks to succeed in his pro-style offense.
The question, of course, is whether he’ll be able to do that at Nebraska—and how much, this season, he’ll be able to get out of quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
There’s no getting around it: with tailback Ameer Abdullah and wideout Kenny Bell both gone, the fate of the Husker offense rests squarely on the shoulders of Armstrong, who showed promise during his first year as a starter in 2014. Though he made the kind of mistakes you might expect, Armstrong also flashed the kind of talent that could make him a real offensive threat in the Big Ten, both through the air and on the ground.
He threw for 2,695 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, adding another 705 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. They weren’t staggering numbers, necessarily, but they were certainly impressive; Armstrong’s 3,400 total yards in a season rank third in Nebraska history, and his passing yard total was the best season ever turned in by a Husker sophomore quarterback.
The kid is certainly talented, and that’s a good thing, too, because he’s not going to have a lot of help. There is no true replacement for Abdullah on the roster, three starters from the offensive line need to be replaced, and there’s a dearth of big-play threats elsewhere. Plus, there’s the inconvenient fact that, in truth, Armstong may not be the quintessential Riley quarterback. The coach will very likely ask Armstrong to resist the urge to run as much as he might like, and while that may ultimately serve the offense well, one has to wonder how quickly Armstrong will adjust.
In the years to come, we can only expect that Riley will bring in precisely the kind of guys he would like to run his offense. For the time being, though, he’s got to work with what’s he’s got. And what’s he’s got is a really talented quarterback with the tools to attack defenses in a lot of different ways.
The Huskers’ success this season will be decided by how smartly Riley uses his quarterback—and how well Armstrong reacts to being the unquestioned playmaker of an offense that desperately needs one.