LINCOLN, Neb. — A few weeks ago, Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf laid out what life without four-year starter Tommy Armstrong at quarterback would look like down the road.
Essentially, he said, he wants a malleable system that any type of quarterback could fit into.
“I think you have a system and you’ve got some different ways you can tweak it,” Langsdorf told Land of 10.
Head coach Mike Riley and Langsdorf may find out if their system works a lot sooner than they thought.
Armstrong is in the concussion protocol following a hit in the Ohio State loss on Saturday. Riley said on Monday he should know if Armstrong can play by Thursday, but the concussion protocol usually lasts a week, which could make Armstrong a game-day decision. Plus, Riley said, even if Armstrong is cleared there’s no assuring he’ll start Saturday against Minnesota.
“I don’t have a crystal ball in that way,” Riley said. “I can’t say he’ll be ready to play or not ready to play until we get further into the process of concussion protocol.”
All of which leaves Nebraska with perpetual backup and former walk-on Ryker Fyfe, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound, fifth-year senior who is in almost every way the opposite of Armstrong.
Despite being in the program for five years, this is the entirety of Fyfe’s playing experience:
14 games, 1 start, 46 of 89 passing, 578 yards, 7 TDs, 6 INTs
That’s the downside of having a durable quarterback like Armstrong for four years while continuously playing in close games.
“We’ve been in so many close games in the second half, it’s too bad we didn’t get him in more often,” Riley said on Monday about Fyfe.
In his one career start, at Purdue in 2015, Fyfe was 29 of 48 for 407 yards, 4 TDs and 4 INTs. The Boilermakers won that game, 55-45. A closer look at those stats reveals that, take that one game away and Fyfe has all of 17 completions for 171 yards in his career in Lincoln.
With Fyfe, Riley and Langsdorf have a unique challenge. Last year, they tried to make Armstrong into the type of quarterbacks they had at Oregon State: a big-arm, behind-the-center, pocket passer. When that didn’t work, Langsdorf and Riley converted their offense into an offense that worked toward Armstrong’s strengths. One with designed runs and more shotgun-based formations.
In order to adjust, Langsdorf ideally wants a base foundation — the same terminology and same basic layout that he and the coaching staff could then alter to cater to a particular style. That way, if Nebraska has a mobile quarterback and pocket-passer on the roster, the two QBs wouldn’t have to learn totally different offense. Or if changes need to be made once a particular quarterback gets some playing time and shows different strengths and weaknesses, the changes are manageable.
“I think that we’ve shown that, with our history and with Tommy, I think that we’ve evolved,” Langsdorf said a few weeks ago. “We can go either way, we’re going to always tweak it to how our players, we’re going to tweak it our system to what we have.”
He added: “We’re not going to throw (the offense) out and start all over (if a new quarterback comes in), but we have a lot of ways to kind of cater to the type of guy we have.”
But with Fyfe it’s tricky. His strengths are much different than Armstrong’s. The current offense doesn’t necessarily fit Fyfe’s style — he’s neither a mobile quarterback nor a pocket passer. Fyfe was a walk-on in Bo Pelini’s system, which was more zone-read based. But Fyfe was actually a sort of outlier in that system, too, with his broad physique and gunslinger throwing style.
So with Fyfe, the question becomes: How much — if at all — does the offense tweak with Fyfe?
Riley didn’t give many answers on Monday, but did say he likes a lot of what Fyfe has in his arsenal.
“I believe he is always well prepared,” Riley said. “I really like his ability. I think that, given the chance to play, he will perform and do a nice job. I think our team has faith in him. And I think that that kind of comes through all the time. They see him in practice and see the work that he puts in. So I think if that’s the way we end up going I think Ryker will do a good job for us and help us win the game.”
If Fyfe is given the keys to the car, he’ll have to jump-start an offense that hasn’t gelled in more than a month. Nebraska had just 204 total yards and 3 points against the Buckeyes on Saturday. In fact, the Huskers (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) have eclipsed 30 points only once in their last six games. Not coincidentally, Nebraska now finds itself on a two-game losing streak and in a virtual must-win situation against Minnesota on Saturday to keep its West Division hopes alive.
Riley said on Monday that the Huskers, essentially, have to go back to Square 1 this week in an effort to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. Nebraska couldn’t connect on long throws on Saturday. The Huskers could hardly run the ball. The offense overall just isn’t working.
With Fyfe potentially at the helm, will Nebraska go back to the 2015 offense? Will this be a peak into the 2017 version of this offense? Will this prove whether Langsdorf’s system of “Any Quarterback Will Do” can work?
Senior WR Jordan Westerkamp, who’s caught balls from Fyfe since the two redshirted back in 2012, isn’t too worried.
“He a great QB,” Westerkamp said. “If he’s our guy this week we’ll behind him 100 percent.”