LINCOLN — When asked Monday which of his quarterbacks would take starter’s snaps at practice later that night, perhaps Nebraska coach Mike Riley smiled so he wouldn’t wince.
“I don’t know,” he said, drawing chuckles from reporters who’d just been informed backup Ryker Fyfe — who passed for 220 yards in a 28-7 win over Maryland — broke a bone in his left wrist during the game. The right-hander had surgery on the wrist Sunday. His status for Friday’s game at Iowa is questionable, as is the status of starter Tommy Armstrong, who missed the Maryland game with a hamstring injury.
That means No. 3 quarterback Zack Darlington — an emergency option designed to preserve the redshirt of true freshman Patrick O’Brien — could play at Iowa if neither Armstrong nor Fyfe is healthy enough to play.
“This will be the biggest juggling act we’ve had to start a week, but I believe we’ll come out of it,” Riley said, noting that Armstrong, Fyfe and Darlington would all take snaps in a Monday night practice that was closed to the media. “We’ll know a little bit more tonight. We’ll know a lot more after (Tuesday’s) practice, and that’ll head us into the final couple days of preparation for the game.”
Armstrong’s hamstring has “definitely improved” since last week, Riley said. The pulled muscle — suffered at the end of Armstrong’s game-winning touchdown against Minnesota — meant that Armstrong spent his Senior Day in warm-ups instead of a uniform. Fyfe, a fifth-year senior from Grand Island, played capably in Armstrong’s absence, guiding NU to 21 first-half points against the Terrapins and keeping the Huskers turnover-free.
Afterward, coaches and teammates praised Fyfe’s leadership and pre-snap adjustments. Fyfe then talked to reporters with ice on the wrist. He said he’d injured it sometime in the third quarter.
It turned out to be a broken bone. Riley said Fyfe will wear “some sort of brace” on it this week.
Such an injury may affect Fyfe on snaps and if Iowa defenders successfully target and hit the brace.
Riley didn’t rule out either quarterback. He said he’d be OK with Armstrong playing even if Armstrong’s usual running skills were restricted by the hamstring, which meant fewer designed quarterback runs or read option plays.
“I have a comfort level with him at quarterback, even if he can’t be everything Tommy always is,” Riley said. “Because, frankly, it’s experience. He’s played in a lot of football games, and this’ll be an exciting, big-time atmosphere, big-time game. Having him being able to play — at whatever level that is — is good.
“But I also feel good about Ryker. If Ryker is the one who is the healthiest and can play — certainly his legs aren’t affected. I think everybody found out he can run. He’s a good athlete. He can make some plays with his legs. I think we’re going to find something that’s OK. And it’s going to be good, and we’re going to win the game with a combination or whoever is healthiest or however that works.”
Riley added that Darlington will have to be prepped as if he might play the whole game.
“And we have to have a nice package that he feels comfortable with that fits what he can do,” Riley said.
Darlington was a highly touted high school quarterback out of Apopka, Florida, but he sustained two severe concussions during his senior year — one before the season in a workout accident and one in the season-opening game — that left his playing career in question. NU honored Darlington’s scholarship. He stayed at quarterback for two seasons before moving to wideout for spring drills. He became Nebraska’s holder after the death of punter Sam Foltz and has moved back to quarterback in the wake of Armstrong’s injury.
Riley would rather play Darlington than O’Brien, who is slated to compete for the job as a redshirt freshman next spring.
“What would that do to the start of his career?” Riley said of burning O’Brien’s redshirt. “I really don’t want to go there.”
It’s not unheard of for Nebraska to start three quarterbacks in a season. It happened in 2013 with Taylor Martinez, Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III.
In 2010, only Martinez and Cody Green started games, but Zac Lee, who’d been the primary starter in 2009, played in chunks of several games, including Texas and Missouri. At one point during the 2010 Iowa State game, running back Rex Burkhead, operating out of the Wildcat formation, was NU’s primary quarterback because Martinez and Lee were hurt and Green had been dazed on a play.
Nebraska mostly ditched the Wildcat formation after 2010 — especially after Burkhead’s departure in 2012.
Riley hinted that, in a pinch, Nebraska might dust it off if needed for Friday. He mentioned that freshman cornerback Lamar Jackson, who played some quarterback in high school, might be an option.
Senior wideout Jordan Westerkamp said he’s never played quarterback.
“I’m open to it, though,” he joked.
Asked about Armstrong — his roommate and close friend — Westerkamp said the quarterback was engaged in the preparation process last week, watching film despite not being able to play. Armstrong was questionable for the Minnesota game, too, as he was recovering from a concussion. But he played his best game against the Gophers, winning Big Ten offensive player of the week honors.
“He lives in the training room, obviously, getting better,” Westerkamp said. “He does all the things he’s supposed to do. He’ll be just as sharp as he was when he was playing.”
In light of the injuries, Riley said Nebraska would benefit by being its “best defensively” against the Hawkeyes. NU has given up just 96 rushing yards combined in the last two games.
Senior defensive tackle Kevin Maurice agreed.
“In our room we don’t even talk about the offense,” Maurice said. “We put everything on our shoulders. We understand that, if we do what we’re supposed to do — and we control them — if they can’t score any points, they can’t win.”