Published Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 10:18 pm / Updated at 4:44 pm
FOOTBALL
Chatelain: Hard to ignore echoes of Tommie in Tommy

I didn't bring up the name. Ron Brown did. Three times.

Nebraska had just smothered Illinois for win No. 4 when I approached the Husker running backs coach, whose football expertise covers just about everything, including the glory years of this program.

So I asked Brown: What do you look for in a young quarterback?

Brown has watched dozens of quarterbacks come through Memorial Stadium since Steve Taylor. Heroes, duds, everything in between. He knows what works and what doesn't.

He had just watched Tommy Armstrong's second start, which unfolded almost as well as his first against South Dakota State. No. 4 airmailed a few throws. He missed a few big-play chances. But he didn't commit a turnover. And his first three drives produced touchdowns. It was just what coaches have come to expect from their redshirt freshman.

So what do you look for, Ron?

“Control,” he said, a black headband covering his cold ears. “The ability to walk in the huddle and have an aura. Tommie Frazier had that. Clearly. Without a doubt. It was unmistakable as a true freshman. When he first walked in the huddle, there was no doubt who was boss. ...

“That's what I like about Tommy Armstrong.”

We football novices have a reputation for building hype and stirring controversy, especially at quarterback and especially when a team is struggling. But even Ron Brown can't help but think of Tommie when he sees Tommy.

Armstrong is technically still the No. 2 quarterback, scheduled to stand on the sideline when Taylor Martinez's toe heals. But his performance Saturday will do nothing to quiet those calling for a permanent change. Armstrong throws a pretty ball. He's crafty on the option. And — here's the best part — his intangibles exceed his tangibles.

“He's got that 'it' factor,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “There are certain guys over the years that have it. It's hard to describe. They make other guys better. They find a way to win.”

Nobody more than Frazier, who made his first start 21 years ago this month. Brown thought of the parallels a few weeks ago as Armstrong prepared for South Dakota State. Armstrong carries himself with the same assertiveness. He isn't afraid of the environment or his teammates.

“He's got some of that banty rooster in him,” said Brown, who begins strutting his chin, in and out, in and out.

“Most quarterbacks don't come in that way. Tommie Frazier did. Not many other guys do, really, honestly. We've had a lot of good quarterbacks. Very few did.”

“He acts like he owns the place,” I say.

“That's maybe the best way to put it,” Brown says. “That's what I saw Tommie Frazier do. Is he going to be Tommie Frazier? I don't know. Those are pretty big boots to fill. But he's got that temperament about him.”

In 2009, Nebraska recruited two quarterbacks. The first, Taylor Martinez, was so physically gifted that coaches couldn't keep him off the field. But he struggled with the natural leadership qualities some quarterbacks carry in their bloodstream.

The second quarterback from 2009, Cody Green, seemed to ooze leadership. Trouble was, he didn't have the game to go with it.

Armstrong is somewhere in the middle. Like Frazier, he isn't the best athlete. But he has enough quickness, enough speed, enough muscle, enough arm to be great. And the intangibles. This is what Bo Pelini said about him on Signing Day 2012:

“I think Tommy's a real talented guy. Obviously, he's physically talented and he can do a lot of different things with the ball. What we're really excited about is the type of leader he is, the type of command he has in the huddle and the type of person that we're getting.”

The coaches' opinions haven't changed. Will Armstrong become a star? Hard to say. But when it comes to quarterbacks, it's better to take extraordinary intangibles and mold the skills rather than trying to take extraordinary skills and mold the intangibles.

When teammates assess Armstrong through two games, they don't note his passes or pitches. They mention things like “poise,” Jeremiah Sirles said.

“Demeanor,” Kenny Bell said. “Demeanor and confidence.

“I play wide receiver, I don't have to know everything. And my first two games (of my career), my head was spinning. I was nervous. Tommy's stepped up, he's made the right reads, he's made the right plays. He's just doing a good job. I'm excited to play another year with him.”

The game plan Saturday, like two weekends ago at South Dakota State, was to start Armstrong, give Ron Kellogg the third drive, then “play it by ear,” Pelini said. By halftime, it was clear the freshman gave NU the best chance to win.

He didn't necessarily “make” the key play. More often he facilitated.

In the third quarter, Ameer Abdullah took Armstrong's option pitch 43 yards for a TD — “(Abdullah) told me after the game, 'We are a dangerous duo now.' ”

Later in the third, Bell snared his high pass and took it 37 yards for a touchdown — “Honestly I told him after that catch, 'Thanks for saving my butt.' ”

Armstrong's two highlights came in the fourth quarter. When he faked an option pitch and dashed toward the goal line, he left an Illinois defender flat-footed, looking for the ball. Had fireworks exploded in the east balcony, 90,000 fans wouldn't have gasped any louder.

Later in the fourth, Armstrong started an option to the right, hit the brakes and circled back around to the left sideline for 7 yards.

Armstrong didn't run much option in high school. He has quickly developed the skill at Nebraska, where he's found time to catch a few highlights of the old days. Including Frazier.

“Incredible,” Armstrong said.

The longer Taylor stays on the sideline, the more Tommy gets a chance to show his stuff — and persuade fans he's the guy who can lead Nebraska back to the glory years.

The freshman isn't thinking that far ahead. Not yet anyway. Just before 4 p.m., 90 minutes after his last snap, Armstrong tweeted a message to his 10,000-plus Twitter followers:

Time to rest for a little now :) #welldeserved

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Illinois game:



Video: NU's Ameer Abdullah after the Illinois game:



Video: NU's Tommy Armstrong after the Illinois game:



Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon:

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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