Now in it’s third year as a summer series, we’re looking at Huskers who could be major swing factors in Nebraska’s upcoming season. One a week, working from the bottom up.
No. 6: Dedrick Mills
Really, for most of the season last year, Nebraska had two options for non-quarterback runs: Dedrick Mills or Wan’Dale Robinson. The unreliability of Maurice Washington both on and off the field ratcheted up the frustration there, and when Washington was removed from the equation, Nebraska, still intent to preserve a redshirt year for Rahmir Johnson, split the backfield between the 190-pound freshman wideout Robinson and the 5-11, 220-pound junior Mills.
In 10 different quarters last season, Mills didn’t register a carry. The third against South Alabama (Nebraska ran something like five plays in that quarter thanks to defense and special teams so that can be excused), the second against Ohio State, the third against Northwestern, the opening frame against Minnesota, the entire second half against Indiana, the second and fourth against Purdue and the entire second half against Maryland.
The Maryland game notwithstanding, Nebraska could have used Mills’ running in all of those situations. Northwestern was a one-possession game throughout. Minnesota was that infamous hoodie game where Nebraska kinda, sorta looked like it didn’t want to play physical football from the outset, would giving Mills a few carries early have set a better tone?
The JUCO product by way of Georgia Tech is termed a “sweater” in practice by his running back coach Ryan Held. He’s deemed a workhorse style back, a bruiser that wears on opponents in game and then starts to lean on you as fatigue sets in.
That’s what Mills is billed as, but not what he’s sold as. The vast majority of the running backs carries came on first or second down. Up until the Wisconsin game, he perhaps wasn’t a trusted runner on third down (or Nebraska was in a passing situation, which it was a lot). Mills was a runner on standard running downs and run up the gut for a large percentage of those.
Still, for the season, he averaged a very healthy 5.2 yards per carry to go along with 10 touchdowns.
Mills feels like he’s not too far removed from Devine Ozigbo in terms of the role he could play in this offense, but much like with Ozigbo in the 2018 season, it seemed like Nebraska was initially reluctant to fully commit until they were handcuffed to him.
Robinson got hurt late in the year and physically couldn’t run it anymore. The following week against Wisconsin, Mills turned in his best performance of the season. He went for 188 yards on 17 totes, completely gashing the Badger defense in every way.
He had a 27-yard carry off the left tackle on a third down, a 16-yard carry off right tackle on first, a 16-yarder up the middle on third, a 21-yarder off left tackle and a 43-yarder off right tackle both on first downs.
He followed that rushing performance up with a 12-carry, 65-yard, one-score first half against Maryland, and a 24-carry game against Iowa.
I’ve been thinking back to something Ozigbo said midway through his 2018 season. He liked to work himself into the game with early carries and a chance to bang on the defense a little. That’s the case with a lot of running backs. The saying with quarterbacks is if you have two you really have none, but a lot of running backs will tell you they wish that saying applied to their spot as well. They want the ball. If conditioning is in a place it should be in, the running back is going to get better as the game wears on.
Washington is fully off the board as we enter 2020. Robinson spent the opening days of spring camp working exclusively as a wideout. Nebraska has Rahmir Johnson and then a trio of Ronald Thompkins, Sevion Morrison, and Marvin Scott III in the same “Let’s see what we can get out of them” situation once fall ball starts. All signs point to Mills getting a longer leash.
Is a 1,000-yard season in the offing for the senior? It very well could be.
Nebraska saw an offense that didn’t take an anticipated step forward, saw a plan that didn’t work the way it was intended to, and spent a large chunk of the offseason going back to the drawing board. The Huskers were already trending toward more of a running team, and depending on how much work Adrian Martinez and his wideouts are allowed to get in before the season, running the ball might be NU’s greatest strength in 2020.
Nebraska knows what kind of weapon it has in Mills.
How will he be deployed?
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.