It's safe to say that last year the Nebraska passing game was out of sync.
Four-year starter Taylor Martinez went down at the end of the non-conference schedule and appeared in just one Big Ten game. That meant a suddenly increased workload for Tommy Armstrong Jr. — a redshirt freshman — and Ron Kellogg III. With those two thrown into the fire, the pass numbers weren't great. The Huskers were the second-worst passing team in the conference with 196.7 yards through the air each week. That ranked 95th in the country.
Losing Martinez was obviously what threw everything out of whack, and it did so in a bigger way than some might have realized.
“I had a feeling Taylor was done. I knew he was hurting pretty bad. But the challenge was getting associated with a new quarterback," wide receiver Kenny Bell said last week at Big Ten Media Day. "That’s not just receivers but it’s everything. It’s handoffs between quarterback and running back, it’s snaps. It’s really readjusting the whole offense with a new guy. You talk about the quarterback position, they touch the ball every single play. So if you have a guy that gets hurt, you definitely don’t want it to be that guy. That was tough, that’s for sure.”
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But the lack of success following Martinez's injury shouldn't paint any kind of negative picture of Armstrong. Aside from being a redshirt freshman getting his first collegiate action, he was thrown into the fire about as badly as someone can be, handed the keys to the offense and asked to keep driving. With an offseason to prepare for being the starter, Bell said we should expect big things from the Husker signal-caller in 2014.
“Tommy’s a stud. I love the kid to death, for one. And two, I think he got handed a pretty raw deal last year," Bell said. "To have to come in and step in and play for a guy like Taylor, who’s arguably one of the best quarterbacks in Nebraska history, and to be a 19-year-old kid and to come in and try to do that, it’s not an easy task. So tip of the hat to Tommy for that. What I think you’re going to see this year is a totally different player. The kid’s solid, and he’s not a redshirt freshman anymore. He’s a big boy, so we’re expecting a lot out of him.”
Of course, there are still challenges Armstrong has to take on. He's not technically guaranteed the starting job, with Bo Pelini declaring it an open competition at Big Ten Media Day. Competitors include Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe.
"I think when we line up day one, it will be Tommy will walk out there take the first snap. Because he has the most experience," Pelini said. "He kind of earned that right through the spring. But I think the competition is, gosh, very good. I think it's going to make all three of those guys better."
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Not only that, but there's still some getting-used-to that needs to be done with teammates. Bell said he's still working on getting to the same level of familiarity with Armstrong he had with Martinez.
"Any time you start talking about quarterback-receiver relationship, I think it’s important that we see and react to things the same way," Bell said. "So I think that’s the biggest difference. Taylor and I were on the same page. We were just familiar with one another. That’s something that’s developing between Tommy and I, and it will get better through camp. It just takes time.”
But despite losing top-notch receiver Quincy Enunwa to the NFL, the Nebraska offense figures to be improved in 2014. The biggest thing determining that success will be running back Ameer Abdullah, who returns after a season that saw him lead the Big Ten in rushing. But a full season of a better-prepared Armstrong, plus a big playmaker like Bell, ought to mean brighter days than those that came at times last season.
“I think the expectations are high, as always," Bell said. "We want to win football games.”