Crouch on Husker Players, Coaches, Mindset
Randy York’s N-Sider
With Labor Day a week away, it must be football season, an ideal time to check in with Eric Crouch, one of three Nebraska Heisman Trophy winners. Crouch will be the analyst joining play-by-play man Kevin Kugler in Memorial Stadium's broadcast booth for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. non-conference game against Florida Atlantic on the Big Ten Network. Former Husker Orange Bowl MVP Damon Benning will be BTN's sideline reporter for the season opener.
Crouch's heroic reputation is based on four signature plays – 1) his 63-yard touchdown catch on a Black 41 flash reverse pass over No. 2 Oklahoma in Memorial Stadium; 2) a diagnostic burst that took him out of the shadows of his own end zone and into an electrifying 95-yard touchdown sprint against Missouri; 3) his overtime touchdown that beat Notre Dame, 27-24, in South Bend when the No. 1 Huskers had nearly half of 80,000 fans wearing red; and 4) his hard-nosed sophomore touchdown that steamrolled a Hawkeye defender in Iowa City and gave Big Red fans a preview of the drive, leadership and toughness that would help Crouch earn college football's highest individual honor.
But that was yesterday and yesterday’s gone. Now Crouch sits in a press box and shares his opinions on television. Saturday’s game will be his only BTN game of the season. The other 11 regular-season games he will help call will be on CBS, so The N-Sider wanted Crouch’s professional take on three major factors in Nebraska’s 2014 season – Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s second season at the controls of Nebraska’s offense; Ameer Abdullah’s decision to postpone his NFL career so he could pursue the same prestigious trophy Crouch won in ‘01; and why Eric is so enthused about the offensive line developing under the watchful eye of John Garrison. Please join our conversation:
Q: What is it about Tommy Armstrong Jr. that stands out for you right now?
A: His demeanor in not seeming like he’s confused, unprepared, or scared of the game, or scared to get hit, or in any way letting his team down. To me, his demeanor is confident…that he can take his team into battle and win the game. He has some experience now, but for the most part, he’s still relatively inexperienced. His coaches didn’t really rely on him to come in and win football games. They had a pretty solid running back corps, and I think they relied on them and the receivers pretty heavily to make some plays.
Q: You analyze, so be honest. What are you expecting from Tommy in Season 2?
A: As a quarterback at Nebraska, you have to be able to come in and do great things. You have to be able to take control of the game yourself. I think that’s what Nebraska fans and all of us ex-players want to see when we watch a quarterback take over. I know from the ex-quarterbacks who have been in that position before, we had control of the game, and I think that is what we are looking for when we are analyzing or watching a game. We are hoping for the best, that the quarterback position can rise above and shine. I believe Tommy has that in him, just by watching him. He has all the tools necessary. He can throw a great ball. He can call the right plays. It’s going to come down to decision-making and if a young quarterback is prepared to make the right decisions. In the passing game, the pre-snap reads help you decide whether to throw a tight ball in there on a third down or hesitate for a second and throw it to the outlet instead of squeezing one in. Those are the types of decisions I think Tommy can get better at. He’s just a sophomore so he has plenty of time to learn. I will say that he has some heat behind him. Ryker Fyfe and Johnny Stanton are quarterbacks who would probably get opportunities if Tommy doesn’t make great decisions when they’re needed in big games.
Q: Elaborate a little bit. Tommy’s the starter, but how close is he being pushed?
A: I think Ryker and Johnny compete and play well. They’re both even more inexperienced than Armstrong. They look great in their uniforms, and they’re put together well. I think Johnny is a better runner and Ryker is a better thrower, maybe just naturally. I think they both need to work on those things they are not as good at. That’s how you get better. To me, the job is Armstrong’s to lose. He’s their guy in line. With his experience, they’re going to rely on him. He will be the quarterback, and if he doesn’t perform, someone else will get the opportunity. Quarterback is a position where you are always asked to do better, always asked to continue to produce and always asked to win. The second that you do not do that, you open the door for someone else.
Q: How do you relate to Tommy playing last year as a redshirt freshman?
A: What happened to him is what happened to me. I’ve been in his shoes before. I got put in my freshman year and was able to start eight games and play 11. So this year for Tommy is a very similar situation. I was able to get a lot of experience, call a lot of plays, read a lot of defenses, and I got hit awfully hard. I learned a lot about the game. Coming into my sophomore year, I was more comfortable, more relaxed. I felt like I had earned this position. We had a very good year (12-1, Big 12 champions, avenged only loss (24-20) at Texas with 22-6 mastery of the Longhorns in San Antonio, followed by a 31-21 win over Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl). A lot of the offensive success relies on the quarterback. I don’t know one team that has a below-average quarterback that is going to be anywhere near the top 10 in the polls or win their conference championship. There has to be a great player in that position. It’s a tough position, and a player needs to be prepared, be hungry and always be viewed as a leader on the team. People rely on the quarterback to lead and to win. I lost my last two games at Nebraska (at Colorado and to Miami in a national championship game at the Rose Bowl). It’s no fun when that happens.
Q: Let’s move on to Ameer Abdullah. What do you think about his return?
A: I think he is a very legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate because of how he can produce, game after game. He comes through almost every single time. When Ameer touches the football, you know something good is going to happen. He’s determined, he’s strong, and he’s smart. His teammates lift him and he lifts the teammates around him up, as well. They believe in him. Right now, without having the star at the quarterback position, like they did last year, they’re looking for Ameer to be that player for them. They want him to be one that they can stand on his shoulders and ride him throughout the season to success. He’s the type of player that can take the game and own it, and win it himself. He’s that good. He makes people miss, he runs people over, he catches the ball in the backfield, and he can outrun you. When you think he’s getting the ball, four or five guys are around him, so it opens up a lot of other plays for the offense. The defense’s No. 1 goal when they see Ameer back there is just to slow him down. When you have a player like Ameer, it opens up a lot of other opportunities for your offense in the passing game.
Q: When Ameer said he was postponing his NFL dream, what crossed your mind?
A: The first thing I felt when he did that was he had some unfinished business. He came back for a reason. He’s very close with his teammates and he has fun. You can tell that when he’s on the football field … he is having fun. I don’t believe that his ultimate goal is to go to the NFL and that’s it. I think he wants to win a conference championship. I think he wants to win a national championship. I think he wants to be one of the players that helps put Nebraska back on the map, and he can be. Getting an education and maximizing your experience in college is a smart decision. He is not going to be the No. 1 pick. He may not even be picked in the first two rounds the way running backs are looked at in the draft. So, why not be a senior? Why not leave with a Heisman Trophy and increase your stock or win some other major award? I think he’s able to get something like that and have the good fortune to be very successful at Nebraska for another year.
Q: You’re into possibility thinking. What are the odds of achieving those goals?
A: I think there is a legitimate opportunity. Bo is doing a great job as a head coach when he wins nine or 10 games but for whatever reason can’t seem to get a conference championship. He’s had a young defense, or a hurt quarterback, and he knows those can’t be excuses for fans, writers or analysts this year. The defense has better experience and a bit more chemistry coming into the year. I see experience at receiver, and a little more now at quarterback. Bo has a fantastic Heisman candidate at running back. Put all of that together with special teams and the kicking game having some experience, plus a pretty solid offense … I think they can put themselves in a really good position to make a run at a conference championship. They don’t just want to be there. They want to win the division, then win the conference and do it in the physical and traditional style that Nebraska is known for – running the football.
Q: You’re pretty bullish. Isn’t every offense only as good as what’s up front?
A: Yes, and I have great faith in John Garrison, the offensive line coach. John was a year or two behind me at Nebraska. John got the chance to get a little bit of that success, and then there was that painful transition. John understands what it takes to be a dominating team, a dominating offensive line. He played with a lot of energy even when he probably wasn’t the biggest guy. He was smart and played with a lot of heart. I think that’s why he’s going to be a great coach and very valuable to that offensive line. He has the ability to get that energy out of his linemen. If you’ve ever talked to John, or just walked to practice with him, you notice that he always has that pep in his step. He is never disappointed about what he has for players, never disappointed about the recruits he has. He is always, always positive. I think just by having that type of mindset and coming to work every day, it will start rubbing off on his offensive linemen, where they think there is really no reason to be negative about anything that happens. You can see John is starting to build a very strong offensive line with confidence. I believe that John has the ability to bring back that mid to late ‘90s offensive line, a line that can completely dominate and control the game and wear people out. I think last year they had a great line, and barring injuries, the same can be true this year. They have a bit of rebuilding, but they have some great leaders on that line, and I think they will do very well.
Q: How would you describe Bo's overall approach to leading the program?
A: Bo controls what he can control. When he shows up to work, he’s always asking if we’re getting better or getting worse. He wants to do the right thing as coaches, players and leaders…he doesn’t want to fall behind. I believe that Nebraska has some very good coaches on defense, and some players have really stepped up and become not just leaders, but steered by others in the conference.
Q: When you scrutinize Nebraska's defense, who catches your eye the most?
A: Randy Gregory has really stepped up, and not only made a name for himself, but brought back some life and a mentality to the Blackshirts. Last year, we were very young and trying a lot of things. We had a lot to learn about styles and players across the board. This year, they have their kinks worked out. They know about those players and where to play them. They’ve made their adjustments, and they know their personalities. I think now it’s time to just go out there and play football.
Q: What’s your take on Bo and the positive charge everyone seems to feel?
A: I think a lot of last season’s rain is under the bridge, and Bo is making it through all of that with the support of the fans, and the university, and the athletic director and the players and all of the coaches. It was tough on him. I covered him three or four times last year, and just talking to him in those coaches’ meetings, it just really wore on him. The whole thing can be extremely stressful. I think moving forward, what happened at the Spring Game with the cat, you can just see that he is having fun. He is enjoying his job, and he is back. That type of attitude, not a carefree attitude, but let’s not forget that college football is supposed to be a fun type of attitude. I think he’s bringing back that mindset. People can look at him and say he’s a serious guy and can change on the flip of dime. But I think he’s developing as a head football coach.
Q: I have one last question. What’s your impression of Shawn Eichorst?
A: I think he’s a great fit for Nebraska. I think he understands the smaller community. I think he understands the football-first mentality. I think he understands that Nebraska football kind of holds the upper hand. I think he understands you still need to compete. You can’t just come into a facility and say, ‘This is Nebraska and we’re going to win automatically’. With Tom Osborne starting the basketball changes and the renovations on the East side of Memorial Stadium, I think Shawn Eichorst is going to continue to do some very good things there that will make Nebraska proud. The vision is right on, and Nebraska is just going to continue to get better and better as time goes on.
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