Growing up in eastern Colorado in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bryan Applewhite remembers what it was like to go to school when Nebraska and Colorado played. If you didn’t want to have a hard time, you better have watched the game and paid attention.
“You couldn’t go to school when I was in middle school, and not be able to talk about the Nebraska-CU game,” Nebraska’s new running backs coach said Wednesday on ‘Sports Nightly.’ “And you better be able to talk about all the Nebraska players and you better be able to talk about what happened and who scored what touchdown. It was great.”
Applewhite, Nebraska’s last assistant coach hire, said it’s been a whirlwind last few weeks for him and his family since accepting the role of guiding the Huskers’ running back room, which currently has six scholarship players in it, including Rahmir Johnson, Gabe Ervin Jr., Jaquez Yant, Markese Stepp, Emmett Johnson and Anthony Grant.
“It’s surreal still. It still kind of hasn’t sunk in yet,” Applewhite said of being part of Big Red.
Applewhite, who spent the past two years coaching running backs at TCU, will be tasked with coaching up an inconsistent group that currently doesn’t have a feature back. Johnson emerged as that at times last season, but injuries forced him to miss the final two games. Ervin, a true freshman in 2021, looked like he could grow into that feature back role, but he went down with a season-ending injury at Oklahoma in week four. Both Yant and Stepp had moments, but their playing time was inconsistent.
The lack of a feature back is why the addition of Anthony Grant is notable. Grant, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound transfer from New Mexico Military Institute who played one season at Florida State in 2018, scored 30 total touchdowns in his two-year junior-college career, 28 of which were rushing. He rushed for more than 2,500 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry.
There was a connection between Applewhite and Grant even before Nebraska—the coach recruited Grant while he was at TCU. Now that Applewhite has Grant in his room, he’s excited to develop him.
“Anthony’s an explosive kid, he’s got tremendous vision, his start-to-stop for a kid his size is unbelievable for what he can do with the ball in his hands,” Applewhite said. “He’s got incredible instincts, he’s tough, he’s got great hands out of the backfield. I was just tickled to death and excited to get the opportunity to work with him.”
Applewhite called Memorial Stadium and the football facilities “breathtaking” and mentioned how much he noticed things have changed in Lincoln since the last time he was in town, which has been a while.
“The last time I was generally on campus walking around was a Husker football camp in the summer of 1992, which was my senior year in high school, so I just dated myself,” Applewhite said. “Just to see how much Lincoln and this university has changed since then. It’s unbelievable. The facilities, it’s the mecca of the Midwest.”
Because of the quick nature of his hiring and being on the recruiting trail, Applewhite has yet to sit down and visit with each of his running backs. But when he does get that chance, he wants to pick their brain and also let them know what he expects.
“When recruiting’s over with and we get back to the office,” Applewhite said, “I want to sit down and meet with each one of them individually and have them share their thoughts on Nebraska and their vision of Cornhusker football and what I have envisioned for each and every one of them, so we can start getting on the same page and start doing some special things.”
Applewhite’s coaching philosophy stems from the fact that he’s never forgotten what it’s like to be a player himself. He went straight from being a player to a coach. There was no in-between job outside of football. He understands what student-athletes go through on a daily basis.
“I’m demanding, but I also understand,” he said. “I want perfection, I want physicality, I want toughness. But I also understand that there are some outside things, especially now today with the way social media is, there’s a lot of pressure on student-athletes and students period.”
Now that Applewhite is wearing the Husker “N” when he’s visiting high schools outside of Nebraska, he’s gotten “Go big red!” shouts. That tells him the Nebraska brand is still strong.
“It’s been unbelievable. The big ‘N’ is still known throughout the country,” Applewhite said. “That goes back to what Tom Osborne did, what Coach (Frank) Solich did back in the 80s and early 2000s. Like I said, you couldn’t go to school and not talk about Nebraska football.”