Heading into the 2020 season, the biggest wildcard position on the team might have been the back-up running back spot. The coaches called Dedrick Mills their bell cow back heading in, but beyond him the Huskers had nothing but freshmen and walk-ons.
Heading into the season opener, Nebraska revealed that redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins would be the back-up running back. After two ACL tears in high school and a setback last season as he redshirted in Nebraska, Thompkins put himself in the position to make his collegiate debut at Ohio State.
The dynamic runner from Georgia showed why the coaches were so high on him, turning six touches into 32 yards. He ran the ball five times for 22 yards including a 9-yard gain on his first touch. He also showed off his hands on a tough 10-yard reception.
Fellow redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson also traveled to Columbus and logged a couple snaps on offense plus some special teams work. Redshirt freshman walk-on Cooper Jewett and true freshman Marvin Scott III both traveled but did not play while true freshman Sevion Morrison did not make the trip.
The backfield looked a bit different when Nebraska traveled to Northwestern in week three, however. According to Coach Scott Frost, Thompkins missed a few practices last week and “wasn’t available” to them. The back-up snaps went to Scott this week, and he turned three carries into 14 yards including an 8-yard gain and a couple of broken tackles. Johnson and Jewett traveled again but did not play.
“We talk about competition at the position and we thought going into that game that Marvin had probably practiced the best, and we rewarded him,” Frost said. “I was impressed with him in his first few carries. He ran the ball hard, did a good job on some plays away from the ball and that’s going to continue to be a competition.”
Back during Nebraska’s signing day press conference for the 2020 recruiting class, Frost said he thought Scott was ready physically to come in and play right away, and Scott showed how true those words were on Saturday.
Through two games, we’ve seen three different back-up running backs, though they’ve combined for a grand total of 24 snaps and eight carries. In fact, Mills himself only got nine carries against the Buckeyes. Nebraska relied more heavily on him against Northwestern — where the Huskers logged 30 more plays — as he ran the ball 19 times and caught a team-high six passes. But Mills’ carries have produced just 3.0 yards per tote.
However, Nebraska’s two quarterbacks — Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey — have combined for 39 rushes for 338 yards (excluding sacks). Whether it be designed runs, read option plays, scrambles or gimmick plays including both quarterbacks on the field, Nebraska’s quarterback run game is the foundation for Scott Frost’s offense right now.
In practice, Mills has been Nebraska’s real back-up ball-carrier, relegating whichever of the young guys earns snaps to third-option status. However, both Thompkins and Scott have showed enough flashes in their brief opportunities to feel good about the room moving forward.
Who will get the reps behind Mills against Penn State on Saturday? We’ll have to wait to find out. That back-up running back continues to be a wildcard.