It's been awhile — at least six years — since Nebraska has had a legitimate quarterback competition.

This could be fun, at least from an outsider's perspective.

"I'd say it's Tommy's job, and there's competition," says first-year Husker coach Mike Riley, referring to junior Tommy Armstrong.

So, an official starting point.

Riley chooses his words carefully regarding the matter, as he should. But he likes Armstrong, that's clear. Likes his poise and managerial skills.

Plus, "I think he's got a good hold on this team," Riley says. "The guys like him. I think they respond to him. I think that's where the other (quarterbacks) have to go if they want to win the job. Plus, they have to produce."

Ah, a blueprint.

Spring ball begins next Saturday. Armstrong, 16-5 the past two seasons as starter and coming off a strong finish to last season, will be pushed by junior Ryker Fyfe and sophomore Johnny Stanton, among others. Fyfe and Stanton have played sparingly. 

The coaching change offers them renewed hope. Same goes for AJ Bush and Zack Darlington, who sat out last season as redshirts.

When it comes to snap judgments and reading tea leaves on the QB race, I'd advise caution. We're not even certain what Riley's offense will look like. He seems ready to deviate, at least a bit, from his "pro-style" background (caution: "pro-style" means different things to different people). But how far would he swerve?

Riley said in early February he directed his offensive assistants to be prepared to delve into unfamiliar areas because of Armstrong's running ability.

Another good sign for the Texan: Like most coaches, Riley puts a premium on experience.

"There is a respect shown to the guys who have played," Riley says. "Tommy's going to take the first snap when he have our first team period."

Riley says he's seen enough of the backup quarterbacks to understand they have potential.

"It's probably encouraging for the backup quarterbacks to know it's a clean slate," the coach says. "But I also think if I'm Tommy, I have the benefit of lots of games behind me, and there is no substitute for that."

He emphasized the words "no substitute." Bottom line, I like Tommy's chances.

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Even so, Armstrong faces formidable challenges this spring — perhaps none bigger than improving his accuracy as a passer. He's completed only 51.9 percent of his throws in his two college seasons, with 31 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

"If we're over 60 percent, that's probably going to be a good goal," Riley says.

More than anything, Riley wants a good decision-maker at QB.

"That kind of trumps it all," he says. "No matter your arm strength, your accuracy, your athletic ability. ... If you make make bad choices, it just kind of messes everything else up."

No. 2, Riley assesses a quarterback's ability to complete a pass under the best of circumstances — when protection is good, a receiver is open and everything else is "clean," as he puts it.

If a quarterback can't complete a pass under those circumstances, he likely would struggle with, say, Ohio State's Joey Bosa in his kitchen.

If Riley had to name the third-most-important quality, it would be managerial skills (an offshoot of No. 1).

"Give the confidence to the team that you know what you're talking about in the huddle," Riley says. "Or if it's no-huddle, you can get the team lined up and run the play, and it looks good."

Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf face the logistical challenge of getting all the quarterbacks enough repetitions to prove themselves.

"I think you have to pick three guys pretty early on," Riley says.

All the while, there's a balance to be struck. In accumulating an abundance of reps for competing quarterbacks, an irresponsible coach could run the rest of the team into the ground, especially the receivers.

"We'll go back-to-back team periods — pass-skeleton periods — so you have two things going on at once (in practice)," Riley says. "So you can kind of double the reps."

Translation: Riley will do all he can to lay out a fair competition that doesn't tax the roster.

"I'm optimistic we can help these quarterbacks show what they can do," he says. "Because that's what you're talking about, right? For us to get a really good picture, we have to see them a lot.

"We have to feed them some material, let them go practice, see how they produce, go back and feed them some more and then see how they do with more volume ... "

He spoke with the enthusiasm of a veteran, offensive-minded coach. He knows the drill. Let the competition commence.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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