Northwestern vs. Nebraska, 10.24.15

Tommy Armstrong is entering his second season in Danny Langsdorf's offense.

Nebraska football coach Mike Riley talks often about the issue, and to his credit meets it head on.

Same goes for Husker offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf.

The issue: It's highly unlikely Nebraska will finish atop the Big Ten West Division in 2016 if it turns the ball over at the alarming rate it did last season.

So, the question: What type of coaching goes into reducing turnovers?

Some of it involves basic ball-security drills. We're talking elementary stuff, like running backs tucking the ball in the proper arm. But let's face it, we're talking mostly about the quarterback in this discussion.

"It's making sure we know who to throw it to and when," said Langsdorf, who doubles as quarterbacks coach. "It's a matter of checking the ball down when necessary, and it's also about not giving the quarterback too many tough reads or too many choices."

Considering senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong's wealth of experience — 33 career starts and counting — one might think he could handle a boatload of challenging reads. But you have to acknowledge this will be only his second season in a pro-style system that doesn't exactly fit him like a glove, which helps explain his 16 interceptions last season.

It also helps explain the two areas Langsdorf identified Tuesday when asked where Armstrong needs to turn his focus as spring fades into summer.

"I think it's continuing to prepare," Langsdorf said. "It's a matter of him not going out there and thinking he can make every play. It's making sure he knows what to do, what the intent of a play is and where to go with the ball. And then, after that, it's about not forcing throws that aren't there.

"If he can do all of that, he's going to have a pretty good all-around game. Because he's already showing he can run the ball. He's a very dynamic runner."

I never tire of the Armstrong/pro-style offense discussion, because it's fascinating on multiple levels, and mainly this one: The essence of coaching is devising the best methods to utilize talent. After largely coming up short on that count last season, mainly as it applies to Armstrong, Riley and Langsdorf seem increasingly and genuinely intent on altering their system to try to maximize Tommy's talents. Of course, it's easier said than done, because in many cases, it takes Riley and Langsdorf out of their comfort zones.

But Armstrong, in many respects, also must leave his comfort zone. We're essentially talking about two separate entities that must adapt for the greater good. You see that often in life, including in marriages. Last I heard, about half of marriages end in divorce. The good news is, the Armstrong-Riley/Langsdorf union is still alive and well despite Nebraska's 27 giveaways last season, which tied for 116th nationally and largely explains the Huskers' 6-7 finish.

Turnovers obviously weren't the only issue. But they clearly held back an offense that often was pretty salty — 34th nationally in average yards per game. Nebraska still has enough talent at the skill positions to be a top-25 offense. Yes, I think the revamped line will be fine. But will Armstrong commit to improving his mental game and mechanics? And will Riley and Langsdorf follow through on what sound like promising alterations to take advantage of their leather-tough and athletic quarterback?

During the spring, you saw the coaches turn Armstrong loose more often as a runner, including more designed runs. He continued to run the zone-read option. But in the Red-White Spring Game, we saw effective use of quarterback-draw plays and even a traditional sprint-out option play.

"There's some more stuff we're doing with him," Langsdorf said. "At the same time, you have to be careful about how many hits the guy is taking. I think that's always a danger with a guy who runs around. You look at (NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III) and the beating he took and injuries he's had. You have to be smart. But Tommy is definitely a threat, and we need to use that part of his game. I think it's important."

Armstrong ran the ball 145 times in 2014 in Tim Beck's spread system, and 98 times last year. Nobody is saying Riley and Langsdorf should blow up their system. But how about committing to about 10 designed quarterback-run plays per week, or somewhere in that neighborhood? That would put Armstrong in the 125-carry range for the season. Perfect.

Meanwhile, Armstrong can help matters this summer by further immersing himself in the mental game, as Langsdorf suggests. With an improved command of the system, Armstrong likely would make quicker and better decisions in the passing game, and throw fewer picks. He made strides this spring. But both Riley and Langsdorf have talked of paring down the drop-back passing game — simplifying. But they can't afford to oversimplify, lest defenses always know what's coming.

There's a balance to be struck. Bottom line, both parties — Armstrong and Riley/Langsdorf — are now more familiar with each other and seem determined to make the union work at a high level. We'll know soon enough whether they're successful. As a wise man once said, you are what your record says you are. 

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


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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