He could’ve gone the Tebow route. Easily. Tommy Armstrong Jr. could’ve thrown open a record book that has his name plastered everywhere, folded his arms and leaned into the pillowy softness of each laurel. I’m a quarterback. Take me or leave me.
Of course, NFL scouts might’ve left. They do that, sometimes.
“Just talking to my agent (Chris Gittings) and being able to sit down with him and understand that, with me being as athletic as I am, it’ll probably be best to have a backup plan,” the now-former Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback told Land of 10. “To have something on my résumé about being able to work at something else.”
It takes a big man to stand his ground, to hold firm to the last drop of principle. It takes a bigger one to willingly change streams in his prime.
When the road is already perilous and unforgiving, why burn bridges along the way? And so the Huskers’ all-time career leader in starts by a quarterback (44), passing yards (8,871), touchdown passes (67) and completions (625) decided during Music City Bowl practices that there was no harm in learning the finer points of playing wide receiver. Just in case.
Actually, more than six weeks into his prep for Nebraska’s pro day on March 14, he’s open to snaps at running back, too. If that floats your boat.
“As far as right now, I’m not sure exactly what I want to do at pro day,” the native Texan said. “I know I’m going to do a lot of quarterback stuff and some receiver stuff. They’re thinking about maybe putting me in and doing a couple running back drills. I haven’t really worked at running back at all. I just want to keep my options open, and whatever they want me to do at pro day, I’ll do.”
No folding arms. No laurels. No ego. Instead, Armstrong Jr. has been hunkered down in Lincoln throughout the refreshingly mild winter, throwing to teammates Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore and others for six days a week — then flipping the script and running routes with them, taking pointers as he goes, cramming like sin.
“Like I said, I’ve got my options open,” Armstrong Jr. said. “I’m just looking for a chance. That’s what this is all about — being in the best shape that you can. And I think right now, I’m in great shape, but I can get in better shape. I’m doing as much as I can.”
‘Routes and all that, I know all those backward and forward’
He’s down to 216 now, roughly 14 pounds off his October-November weight, moving without pain. The ankle and hamstring issues that dogged his senior season now a ghost of Christmas past.
“I’m ready for (the tests),” he said. “I just want to get in the best conditioning shape that I can just to show those guys that I’m more than just a quarterback; I can do a lot. Like I said, just have open-ended options to just where those guys are looking at this (and saying), ‘Maybe this guy, he can play these positions or do this to help our team.’ Just get out there and do my best just to help that first impression on certain things that they want me to do.”
Full disclosure: He hadn’t devoted much time to anything besides quarterback since his sophomore year of at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, when he played receiver and safety, and a little bit of linebacker. But the best of friends won’t lie to you, and some trusted ones from back home — namely, Malcolm Brown and Aaron Green of the Los Angeles Rams — made it very clear: When the NFL comes calling, whatever they ask you to try, try it. Even better: try to freaking nail it.
“Those guys have said, ‘Hey, make sure you keep your options open,’” Armstrong Jr. explained.
So he is. Four times a week, Armstrong Jr. breaks down the art of catching passes with Huskers wide receivers coach Keith Williams, learning how the other half lives.
‘He loves it. He says it’s a challenge to play a different position. From what I’ve seen, he gets after it.’
— Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp on Tommy Armstrong Jr.
“It’s tough, but at the same time, like coach (Williams) always told me, it’s all about just repetition and muscle memory,” Armstrong Jr. said. “The first maybe couple of weeks, it was tough on my legs. But after getting out there and learning and doing exactly what those guys do, it started slowing down. It allows me to just play and just be able to, I guess, do those drills that coach (Williams) wants us to do. It’s helped me a lot just being able to understand how to run certain routes and how I have to adapt to being a receiver and doing the exact same things that they do.
“It was hard at first. I’m getting it now.”
As a 6-foot-1, multi-purpose threat with 1,819 career rushing yards, a 4.3 yards-per-carry average and 23 rushing touchdowns for the Big Red from 2013-16, the athletic part of the learning curve is probably the easiest to navigate.
On paper, No. 4 doesn’t, at first blush, fit the easy prototype of a giant boundary receiver or the glue-handed slot guy across the middle. Then again, there’s more than one road on the passing tree. Julio Jones has been a high-flying freak of nature for more than a decade, going all the way back to high school in Foley, Ala. Julian Edelman was an undersized college quarterback at Kent State. As long as you can catch everything short of a cold, nobody cares how you got there.
“Routes and all that, I know all those backward and forward,” Armstrong Jr. said. “Like coach (Williams) always tells me, make sure I’m following in my hips, make sure I’m at the right depth, make sure I’m getting out of my break fast, make sure I’m running every route right and making sure everything is similar. I think that’s the hardest part about it. It’s easy to be able to throw a route and know exactly where it is (than) having to plant and to adjust to the ball and having to catch the pass and things like that.
“I understand the quarterback side of it, but I want to get educated on the receiver side of it, and I think coach Williams is the right person to do that. And he’s always on my side, telling me how to there’s a bunch of guys that he’s trained that are in the NFL now that started sort of exactly where I’m at. But I’m a step (ahead) of some of them, just because of my athletic ability and just being able to understand (the routes).
“Having his trust and having him trust me to go out there and do exactly what I’m coaches to do, definitely, when it comes to him and making that switch … that’s definitely a boost for my confidence, just being able to hear from him that I ran a route the right way and each week him telling me that I did it way better than I did last week and I’m improving, it makes me work a little harder, just to become that athlete that I want to be, to have those abilities to make plays and do some things for a team.”
It helps having Williams, Reilly and Moore on-site. And one of his favorite old targets, classmate Westerkamp, is just a phone call or a text away.
“He loves it,” said Westerkamp, who’s been training in Florida since the season ended. “He says it’s a challenge to play a different position. From what I’ve seen, he gets after it.”
‘It affected me a lot last year’
While scouts aren’t universally enthralled with Armstrong’s accuracy or mechanics — he completed 53.3 percent of his collegiate throws — few knock No. 4’s guts, a competitive spirit in the face of crapola that would cause lesser men to collapse like a pile of wayward Jenga blocks. At Ohio State on Nov. 5, Armstrong Jr. was concussed after his head hit an unkind patch of turf. He fought through ankle pain to score the game-winner at home against Minnesota on Nov. 12 — only to be carried off by teammates after pulling a hamstring in the process.
When fate tossed him lemons, Armstrong Jr. tried like mad to squeeze every drop of lemonade he could out of those bad boys, playing through pain and, on occasion, common sense. But an ankle injury suffered a few years back that never fully healed had something to do with the consistency of those passes, too.
“At certain times, it got to me,” the Huskers quarterback said. “But it’s something that you’ve got to tough out. I’m not the type of guy to make excuses when it comes to something I did, but it affected me a lot last year.
“If it wasn’t my ankle, the next thing you know, it was my hamstring. It was just a lingering thing. … As soon as I’d get a chance to treat it, we had a game the following Saturday. It was getting better and getting better and then all of a sudden you have a game, and you’re on the road and you’ve got three or four days to prepare and three or four days to rehab it and then turn around and you leave that Friday. Whereas now, it’s more rehabbing and taking care of your body.”
And meeting the fans, including a handful of stops in Omaha slated for Monday and a Boys & Girls Club in Lincoln on Tuesday, shaking hands and thanking the locals who had his back through thick and thin. When it comes to time, like with scouts, sometimes it pays to be flexible.
“Whatever (NFL teams) want to experiment with me, I’m open for it,” Armstrong Jr. said. “I’ve just got to be ready for it. That’s what it’s about, just being prepared and being ready to adapt to the situation.”
It’s hard to re-invent yourself at 22 or 23. But not nearly as hard spending the rest of your life wondering what would’ve happened if you’d only given it a dang shot.