Here Comes the Fun from Armstrong, Others
Randy York’s N-Sider
Tim Beck owns the keys to Nebraska’s explosive offense, and the Huskers' third-year coordinator says Saturday’s Red-White Spring game is not designed to showcase Taylor Martinez, Kenny Bell or anyone else. At least for Nebraska’s offense, the Spring Game will show its own cast of characters how much they’ve improved on their weaknesses. And since the game will be nationally televised by BTN, visiting recruits and others thinking about taking visits to Nebraska may see some new, fun elements that show Big Red fans and Big Ten loyalists why there is no place like Nebraska.
Beck has spent the entire spring concentrating “on all the things that we stunk at on offense last year”, so don’t expect him to light every stick of dynamite in his expanding arsenal. In particular, don’t anticipate seeing Martinez trying to prove anything more than he’s already shown in his first three years as Nebraska’s starting quarterback.
“We want the game to be fun, and we want it to be fair. That’s why we call it a spring game and not a spring practice,” Beck said. “This is not about showing off Taylor Martinez, and it is not about showing off Kenny Bell. It’s about letting guys go out and play and try to be successful and execute.”
Even though Martinez has been an every-down quarterback, Beck leans to what Nebraska linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator Ross Els believes. “If Taylor plays a few downs, a series or whatever, I’d light him up like a Christmas tree,” Els said. “I’d surround him with neon signs. Everyone knows what he can do.”
Armstrong Equipped with All the Right Tools
Hardly anyone outside Nebraska's football family, however, knows what redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong can do, even though Beck has a decent idea of what to expect. Still, until a quarterback sees at least 100,000 eyes staring down at him from 50,000 fans for the first time, predictions seem a bit out of line. "Tommy Armstrong has never been out on that field without a coach standing behind him, if you know what I mean," Beck said.
Fans won't be the only ones tuned into this compelling storyline. Current teammates Martinez and Ron Kellogg III will be supporting Armstrong. So will future teammate Johnny Stanton, who will be among recruits already signed that will flock to Memorial Stadium to check out an east side that has doubled in height.
“Tommy started spring ball a little rusty, but I like his development,” Beck said. “He was out of football with an injury (requiring knee surgery), but I like the improvement he’s shown every day. He’s a fierce competitor. I love the way he scrimmages. I love his control of the offense and his toughness. He still has a long way to go in terms of all of the things it takes to play at the college level, but if he continues to improve, he’s going to be a good one for us.”
Please count sophomore Imani Cross, Nebraska’s No. 1 I-back in the absence of injured Ameer Abdullah, among Armstrong’s growing camp of believers. “It should be fun watching him play Saturday,” Cross said of Armstrong. “He’s smart. He’s poised. He makes good reads and takes control of the offense, and he can run and throw.”
Perhaps a disclaimer is in order. “Tommy Armstrong and Jordan Westerkamp are going to be my roommates this summer and next fall,” Cross said. “All three of us are looking forward to everything in front of us, and all three of us know we have a lot of work to do.”
Cross: Quicker, More Chiseled Running Back
Aggressive but realistic expectations strike the balance for young, talented, driven athletes. “I really like what Imani has done all spring,” Beck said. “I’m very impressed with his vision. He seems quicker.”
That’s because he is quicker and credits his increased acceleration with 12 lost pounds that undoubtedly added a couple more chisels to his body. An additional burst of speed writes an exclamation point to a young but physical back. “Imani has always brought a big punch when he runs,” Beck said. “He runs with a violent, reckless abandon. His game has really improved. I think he just gets it. Even though he’s only a freshman going through his first spring, he seems like a veteran. He’s a lot like Ameer was last year.”
Westerkamp, a redshirt freshman, is another potential offensive weapon behind what could be the best group of starting receivers in program history – Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa. “Those three returning players make up the bulk of our catches,” Beck said. “They’re at a different level right now than any of the other guys. All of them have a tremendous amount of pride. They all want to be the best they can be no matter what, and they kind of feed off each other. They’re in constant competition with each other in every drill for every ball, every route and every block.”
Nebraska's three amigos are the cornerstone of leadership that inspires several young receivers, including Westerkamp. “I really like what Jordan has done this spring,” Beck added. “He’s narrowed the gap. He’s a guy who gets his name in the mix with a lot of other talented young receivers now.”
On the Move: Cole Pensick and Jake Cotton
Beck mentioned dozens of names late this week, including Cole Pensick's and Jake Cotton's stellar spring and rapid rise in an offensive line that has the athleticism and toughness to become “as good a group as we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said.
That’s the good news. The bad news is Nebraska’s pass protection blocking last season may be the leading “stinker” that forced Beck to put tempo and other Husker strengths on the backburner. Replacing them at the top of the priority chart was a keen focus on his offensive unit’s weaknesses that included quarterback decision-making and ball placement, receivers recognizing coverage and the necessity of a more effective option attack.
Nebraska has used a variety of drills to convert its weaknesses into strengths. Coaches on both sides of the ball have stopped plays before they begin just to get everyone lined up right. Some of the tribulations the Huskers have so aggressively attacked may not wow a Spring Game crowd, but they please an offensive coordinator. Especially one who saw his offensive unit go from good to very good last year and is doing everything in his power to take that next big step – from very good to great.
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