Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Competition at Running Back Continues After Ervin’s Season-Ending Injury

September 21, 2021

On Monday, Coach Scott Frost said that freshman Gabe Ervin Jr, who went down with a non-contact injury in Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma, had suffered a patellar tendon injury and would be out for a while.

On Tuesday, running backs coach Ryan Held provided clarity on what “a while” meant, saying that Ervin had undergone successful surgery on Monday afternoon and would miss the rest of the season.

“He’s in really good spirits,” Held said. “I thought he had a really good start to his freshman year. He’s a dog, he loves to compete, and I think he’s going to have a bright future here. Just one of those freak things. You see it all the time, a non-contact thing. That play would have been a huge play, we had it dialed up and just one of those freak deals in the game of football that happen.”

Ervin, who started two of Nebraska’s first four games, left with nine carries for 18 yards. His freshman season comes to an end with 37 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns, but because he only played in four games he’ll be able to count this year as a redshirt. But now Nebraska will have to move forward without him in the lineup.

“The room’s been good,” Held said. “Every day we go out and they’re getting better. I feel good about Rahmir [Johnson], I feel good about [Markese] Stepp, I feel good about Sevion [Morrison], we’re moving [Jaquez] Yant up the ladder a little bit — he’s getting better in practice — and Marvin [Scott III] is. So I feel really good about the room.”

Johnson started on Saturday and led the Husker backfield with 11 carries for 42 yards. Morrison, an Oklahoma native, logged just one carry while Stepp, who racked up 101 yards in week two against Fordham, did not play.

“It was just one of those games where I had every intention of all the guys being ready and then Rahmir was just kind of in a flow and I felt really good about it and I really didn’t want to miss that flow up,” Held said. “It wasn’t anything Markese did, it was just one of those deals that I just felt really good about kind of where we were at. I told the guys we’ve got eight games we’re promised right now in the Big Ten and [Markese] has got to be ready to go because it’s going to be a lot of physicality, obviously starting this week.”

Johnson seemed like something of a forgotten man in the running back discussion heading into the season despite being the most experienced back in the offense. He logged just 29 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns in his first two years in Lincoln with the bulk of that yardage (55 to be exact) coming against Maryland in 2019. Yet it was Johnson who led the backfield in snaps against the Sooners.

“I had a meeting with him and I said, ‘Here’s the deal, your back’s against the wall; you either figure it out or you’ll get passed,’” Held said. “And he just kept practicing every day, coming to work and grading out really well in practice. He earned the opportunity, and I thought he did a lot of good things out there on Saturday when you when you graded it. It wasn’t perfect, I’d have liked to have a couple plays back, but for the most part he did a good job of doing doing the things needed. Obviously, we need more and we’ll continue to to press him to do that along with the other guys.”

Held said Johnson does a good job catching the ball, is knowledgeable of the offense and is probably the best pass protector among the backs with Ervin out of the equation. What’s allowed Johnson to get back in the mix during fall camp, however, is using his speed.

“In practice sometimes he would just kind of glide and I’d say ‘Gliding is not going to work, you’ve got to turn on the jets,’” Held said. “Now, he missed spring ball due to an injury, so he didn’t get a chance to prove it. He was behind the eight ball going into fall camp, but he’s just really practiced with a sense of purpose and with a chip in the sense of he wanted me to play him. So he earned it.”

However, Held said the other backs are hungry as well, and the competition there will continue.

“Markese has had a good week so far; we’re gonna count on him heavily the rest of the way, along with Sevion,” Held said. “And then we’ll see with Yant and Marvin; they’ve got to continue to progress.”

On Monday, Frost referenced Yant’s weight as something that has held him back, and Held echoed that sentiment on Tuesday.

“He was just in a situation where he needed to lose a little weight, and he’s done that,” Held said. “He’s been dieting right, eating right. Dave Ellis has done a great job; they’ve come up with a game plan. You watch him out there, he’s a different guy when he’s at the weight that he’s at compared to what he was before.”

Both Yant and Scott made the most of their limited opportunities against FCS Fordham in week two, averaging 5.0 yards per carry on a combined 11 touches.

Held said the backs have done a good job, for the most part, of supporting each other while continuing to compete hard as the carry count has been in flux throughout the first four weeks. Ervin’s injury means there will be one less guy back there battling for snaps, but the completion will continue.

“There’s still competition,” Held said. “I grade every single thing that they do and that’s really been able to create the competition that we need in the room. It’ll become more clear, but there’s talent in the room and I think the guys are working hard. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and I think it’ll keep shaking itself out.”

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