It was a busy week at Nebraska. Here are a few thoughts as it wraps up.
A Second Chance. Rarely in life do you get them, and even more infrequently do they come immediately upon messing up the first opportunity. Maybe you don’t consider Nebraska’s utilization of Dedrick Mills a “mess-up.” Coaches are more than welcome to disagree with that phrasing. But, man, it feels like a lot was left on the table with regards to Mills’ time in Lincoln, doesn’t it?
The senior running back is off to the NFL Draft, deciding against using his free year from the NCAA to return to Nebraska’s backfield in 2021. Because of his usage, it seemed a given Mills would move on. In 18 career games at Nebraska, Mills averaged 12.6 carries a game. He’s gotten at least 20 carries in a game only three times in his career and produced lines of 169 yards (5.5 per carry), 94 yards (3.9 per carry), and 191 yards (7.6 per carry).
Everyone in Lincoln fondly remembers his Wisconsin performance in 2019.
It’s probably making too much out of two end-of-the-year rock fights, but the last two games of Nebraska’s 2020 season might be the best example of Nebraska’s confounding approach to the downhill back.
A Dec. 12 game against Minnesota brought the Big Ten’s worst run defense to Lincoln and a team incredibly shorthanded with COVID cases holding players out. No one in the conference gave up more rushing yards per carry than the Gophers. At 6.3 a pop, they were also the fourth-worst run-stopping unit in the country. Mills got 12 carries that day as Nebraska ran eight pass plays in the opening quarter and threw the ball on first down 15 times (12 runs).
A week later, against Rutgers, Nebraska ran the ball 58 times for 365 yards. The first down numbers: 29 runs, eight passes. In the second half, Nebraska just sat on the ball (35 runs, 11 passes). Mills got 25 totes and rumbled for 191 yards.
Where was that the week before? Many wanted the exact game plan Nebraska deployed against the Scarlet Knights used the week prior against the Gophers. If it had been, would Minnesota still have left Lincoln with a 24-17 win?
We’ll never know the answer to that question, but the question itself might eat away at a few folks.
Mills was a downhill runner. A short-yardage bruiser. A guy NU said it was going to lean on all offseason. And then none of that materialized.
In steps Markese Stepp.
“He’s a downhill, between-the-tackles, power runner type of guy,” Rick Streiff, Stepp’s high school coach at Cathedral (Ind.) High School, told me on my podcast this week. “We ran a lot of inside runs with him. He’s got excellent speed, but his forte will be power and strength. … (He) likes the physicality of the running game and quite frankly he’s kind of your prototypical Big Ten running back.
“He’s the kind of guy you see all over your league and I think will fit in very, very well.”
Stepp looked at Wisconsin. He wanted a place that fit his skillset. But USC drew the 4-star runner out of the Big Ten’s footprint and into the Pac-12. It just didn’t work out. “He didn’t fit the room,” Streiff said. He redshirted in 2018, carried the ball 48 times for 307 yards and three scores in 2019, then carried the ball 45 times for 165 yards and three scores in 2020.
An ankle injury hampered him, but usage and scheme limited him.
“He was looking for a place that uses his skillset,” Streiff said.
Which brings him back to the Big Ten. To Nebraska.
The thing about potential is that if you have loads of it, you probably haven’t produced much. Guys with potential are guys who haven’t arrived, in most instances, which means they’re still guys with a pretty wide range of variance. Nebraska’s running back room prior to Stepp’s arrival has potential. It has four guys who will be freshmen by eligibility in 2021—Ronald Thompkins, Rahmir Johnson, Sevion Morrison, and Marvin Scott III.
Stepp still has three years to play. That Nebraska is bringing him aboard might signal it is not totally convinced any of the four incumbents are ready for a full-time workload (or whatever Nebraska’s version of that is).
So, does Nebraska want to be a run-first team? Does it want to cut down on the quarterback runs? Does it want to really let Greg Austin put his mark on the run game as its coordinator? Does Nebraska want a bell cow?
These are all things that have been said in the past but have yet to come to fruition.
“(Stepp) can be a 20-plus carry back if fed the ball,” Streiff said. “He had a game in a semi-state game where he had 250 yards rushing on 28 carries against one of the top four teams in the state of Indiana. It was one of those nights where he was completely healthy and we turned him loose. That’s where I saw he could be every night.”
Maybe consistency continues to be evasive at Nebraska. Stepp had a hamstring issue that limited his junior and senior years of high school ball. “He very well would have been the all-time leading rusher in the state of Indiana if it hadn’t been for the hamstrings,” Streiff said. They were an I-back, two-back, power run offense that leaned on Stepp when healthy.
At USC, an ankle injury limited him at the tail end of 2019 and into 2020.
Is he healthy?
When he’s available, will he have the same role as Mills? I wonder if Mills might have been able to be more at Nebraska, but we’ll never know the answer to that question. The new guy should tell us if it’s worth even asking.
Samori Touré’s intrigue is legit. Maybe Touré, an FCS All-American at Montana and a grad transfer wideout now in Lincoln, should lead the “Most Intriguing Huskers” list this year.
“He could do anything,” said Bob Stitt, Montana’s head coach from 2015 to 2017 and the guy who recruited Touré to the program. “He could play in the slot, he could play outside, you just wanted to find ways to get him the ball. A lot of vertical guys, they can really run but they can’t make people miss and they’re not really who you want inside in the slot. Samori can play anything.
“He could take those little smoke routes. You saw Alabama doing that early in the national championship game just trying to get it to their Heisman trophy winner, just a little play action and you pop it out there. Multiple times Samori would take those for 30 yards where a normal receiver, just an average receiver, it might have been a 2-yard gain.”
Nebraska’s had a lot of average receivers. Maybe that’s due to identification. Maybe that’s due to development. Maybe that’s due to the quarterback. Whatever the reason, and it’s likely multi-faceted, Nebraska hasn’t had a ton of elite receivers under Scott Frost. Wan’Dale Robinson? He’s gone. Omar Manning? Not yet. JD Spielman? He dipped. Maybe Zavier Betts can get there with time.
Touré was described as a guy already there. He had 87 catches for 1,495 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019 and if not for the FCS ranks punting the 2020 season to the spring, he might be preparing for the NFL Draft right now.
His former coach certainly thinks he has that kind of pedigree.
But he’ll spend the 2021 season at Nebraska before making the jump to the league.
Nebraska owes it to Touré to honor that commitment. A 6-foot-3 guy, Touré is a vertical threat and a possession receiver. He’s a high IQ guy.
There’s no reason he shouldn’t step right into a starting role when healthy. With the departure of Robinson, there’s no one else in the receiver room, with the exception of Betts perhaps, who currently scares a defense. There’s absolutely potential, but, again, potential doesn’t equal reliable.
Does the transfer wideout elevate the offense with his play? Or do the problems around him drag him down? Let’s hope for the former.
And then let’s pivot to the hardwood. Sam Haiby this season: 16.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists. No one else in the Big Ten is currently matching that across-the-board production. She’s 14th in scoring, sixth in rebounding, and 13th in assists. The junior guard for the Husker women’s basketball program has scoring explosions of 33 and 27 points this season, too. She’s shown the ability to be a volume bucket-getter. The scoring clip could be higher, but she’s shooting 22% from 3 and teams are doing everything they can to take her away.
Still, Haiby has become Nebraska’s unquestioned No. 1 option. She’s proven capable of delivering in the clutch when the game is on the line and continues to grow in confidence. She has a game-winner at the buzzer to her name this season in helping Nebraska upset No. 15 Northwestern on Dec. 31.
On Saturday, while suffering through a 1-for-10 shooting performance, she delivered the knockout blow to yet another No. 15 team, converting an and-one opportunity with under a minute to play that sank Ohio State (previously unbeaten).
If and when Nebraska’s roster returns to full-strength and Haiby is surrounded by a full complement of players, I think she can take her game to even another level.
A healthy Issie Bourne allowed to operate inside-out will strain defenses. Trinity Brady, when she returns from an ankle injury, should give NU a floor-spacer. Her first two games showed a willingness and an ability to bomb from deep. Ashley Scoggin, though she’s suffering through a cold spell, can’t be left alone from the outside and freshman guard Whitney Brown is starting to develop her own “can’t help off of” reputation from the corner as well.
Haiby is becoming exactly what coach Amy Williams thought she could be: a No. 1 option on a good team. When the whole picture is visible again, this team might be pretty dangerous because of it.
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.