LINCOLN, Neb. — Tommy Armstrong Jr. had never taken a meaningful snap when he was thrust into the Nebraska starting quarterback's job. Yet he helped the Cornhuskers to a nine-win season that ended with a bowl victory over Georgia.
The sophomore knows expectations are higher this season.
"I feel like a leader," he said. "I've gained the respect of a bunch of guys on the team. Ameer told me I was one of the reasons he came back. That really touched me, that a veteran guy like him would tell me that. That made me strive to be the best leader I can be this year."
Ameer Abdullah, the nation's top returning rusher, remains the top offensive threat for seventh-year coach Bo Pelini.
Although Armstrong threw six of his nine interceptions in back-to-back games and was only a 52-percent passer, he showed flashes of playmaking ability while replacing injured Taylor Martinez. His slick forward flip to Abdullah on what was supposed to be a triple-option play produced the go-ahead touchdown at Michigan. His 99-yard touchdown pass in the Gator Bowl was a school record.
Armstrong said he's faster after losing about 10 pounds to get to 218 and increased his film study this summer.
He said he changed his approach because, unlike last year, he knows he'll be on the field.
"Anybody can just settle for being good; we have to strive to be great," he said. "It all starts with us quarterbacks."
Offensive lineman Jake Cotton said Armstrong's drive to win showed up during summer conditioning drills, especially during pull-up contests and tugs-of-war.
"Every week other players would compete to get in the ring with him," Cotton said, "and Tommy didn't lose once."
Five things to watch as the Huskers try to win their first conference championship since 1999:
AMAZING AMEER: Ameer Abdullah ran for 1,690 yards, the most by a Nebraska running back in 16 years, and his 17 career 100-yard games are most of any active FBS player. He's 23 yards shy of becoming the eighth Nebraska player to run for 3,000.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Only two teams averaged less than Nebraska's 3 yards per punt return, and the Huskers also need to find a kicker to replace the reliable Pat Smith. Mauro Bondi came in as a scholarship kicker in 2011 and hasn't been able to win the job yet. He's competing in the preseason against freshman Drew Brown, brother of former Nebraska and NFL kicker Kris Brown.
INJURY ISSUE: The change in NCAA rules that allows coaches to spend up to eight hours a week with players in the summer has helped Nebraska deal with personnel losses that already have cropped up, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. Byerson Cockrell, a junior-college transfer who enrolled in January, is first in line to take over for nickel back Charles Jackson (season-ending knee surgery). Freshmen Josh Kalu and Trai Mosley also could fill in at nickel, and freshman Kieron Williams will have an opportunity to play right away at safety with the loss to LeRoy Alexander (suspension). "You can tell they were well-coached in high school," Papuchis said. "The things we're teaching and installing, it doesn't seem like they're hearing it for the first time."
DOMINANT D-LINE? The front four of ends Randy Gregory and Greg McMullen and tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins make up what could be Nebraska's best defensive line since the Ndamukong Suh-led line of 2009. "This group has a lot of talent, but they have a lot of work to do to prove that they're the group we think they can be," Papuchis said. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks, the most by a Husker since Suh had 12 in 2009. "Randy is a great kid," Suh said. "I've had a chance to engage with him now and then ... He has an opportunity to be successful and be another top (NFL) pick that comes out of the Pelini era."
YOGA'S A BEAR: The Huskers went through yoga sessions this summer with the goal of increasing flexibility and strength and preventing injuries. The exercises initially drew sideways glances from some of the offensive linemen. Jake Cotton said there were lots of giggles the first session. "We had a little struggle with some of the poses, as you can imagine," Cotton said. "The guys got behind it. We're all yogis now."