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Ask Tommy Armstrong about his gold football helmet.

It's an award. A trophy of sorts. He's proud of it. He keeps it in his locker.

Long story short, the gold helmet symbolizes the hard work and physical prowess Armstrong displayed on a weekly basis during Nebraska's offseason conditioning competition.

Yes, competition.

The competition is difficult to describe without having been there. But it occurred for eight straight weeks. There were one-on-one battles both in the weight room and on the field — skills and drills, they call it.

Armstrong, the Huskers' sophomore quarterback, beat teammates in a sled-pushing drill, medicine-ball throw, tug of war, hand-to-hand drill, various strength- and speed-related battles. The competition pitted players from designated position groups.

Armstrong claimed the gold helmet the first week, and for seven ensuing weeks, nobody could top him.

He was the only player at any position to hold a gold helmet all summer, according to Nebraska head strength coach James Dobson.

"I felt it was making a statement to the coaches, and to Coach Dobson," Armstrong told me this week.

Armstrong beat strapping fullback Andy Janovich at one point. He beat fast-and-furious linebacker Marcus Newby. He beat athletic tight end Trey Foster. He beat powerful linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey.

He beat some tough dudes.

"Coach (Tim) Beck always wants us quarterbacks to be one of the toughest guys on the team. He stresses that," Armstrong said of Nebraska's offensive coordinator. "He means mentally as well as physically. In the offseason, that was the main thing I wanted to do — prove I could be one of the toughest guys on the team.

"I proved that to Ameer Abdullah and all those guys like Imani Cross. It really helped."

Armstrong seems confident entering Saturday's opener against Florida Atlantic. He should be confident. Being well-prepared physically helps him mentally. His overall determination to improve indicates maturity. It indicates a strong desire to achieve. It indicates leadership.

We know Armstrong can lead. At least, we've seen strong indications. He's a natural in that regard, teammates say.

We also know he has plenty to prove after his uneven 2013 season in relief of Taylor Martinez.

If Beck doesn't ask too much of Armstrong in the passing game, and if Beck does what he says and keeps the offense relatively streamlined, I think Tommy will have a gold-star season.

I harken to the Gator Bowl. Armstrong showed toughness and maturity. He managed the game well against a good defense in the rain. He made key plays but didn't try to do too much.

Armstrong said he's gotten "a lot stronger" since last season.

"We stayed in the weight room this offseason a lot more than we did in the last couple years," he said.

He wonders if that approach affected Nebraska's conditioning to begin preseason camp. He thinks the Huskers started a bit slow. He started a bit slow, especially in the passing game, but came on strong as camp progressed.

"After the first week of going through practice tempo, we got in shape a lot quicker than I thought we would," he said.

The 6-foot-1 Armstrong looked confident even as he struggled passing. He also looked strong. Looked powerful. He ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash early this summer. But at that point, he weighed about 225 pounds. He weighed 217 earlier this week.

He feels faster, he said. He felt like he needed to get faster "just because, you know, I have to get around (Husker defensive end) Randy Gregory somehow.

"Getting around the edge and being able to out-run defensive ends, that's important," he said.

Armstrong can be a punishing runner. He gets most of his yards in 4- and 5-yard chunks. He has the build of a linebacker. Ask Janovich. Or Rose-Ivey.

Although Armstrong has been a bit injury-prone at Nebraska, I think he'll hold up well.

He expects to play better than last season.

"I think I was just out there playing," he said. "This year, I've had time to practice with the 1s (first string) every single day. There's nothing like talking to Coach Beck, and then talking to (senior wideout) Kenny Bell, because Kenny Bell actually is out there and understands what's going on.

"Sometimes you have to be able to listen to both sides of the story."

Chemistry obviously is important.

Same goes for toughness.

Armstrong thinks quarterbacks generally are the toughest guys on a team, mentally and physically.

"Sometimes you're going to have to take hits," he said. "Sometimes you're going to have to stay in the pocket and deliver balls. It's pretty hard to sit up there in the pocket and know you're going to get smacked, but you also have to make a play.

"Also, when things are down and out, your teammates — your offensive linemen, even your defense — they're expecting the leader of the team, the quarterback, to be the guy that gets everybody going."

Armstrong is that guy for Nebraska.

He reinforced his toughness this summer. He has a gold helmet to prove it.

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

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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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