Heading into the delayed 2020 season, Nebraska has a handful of positions with clear-cut starters that the Huskers are counting on for a big season. Running back is one of them with senior Dedrick Mills at the top of the depth chart.
Mills got off to a slow start after arriving in Lincoln from Garden City Community College but finished strong, carrying the ball 53 times for 347 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and two touchdowns in Nebraska’s last three games.
“He’s definitely gotten a lot better over the past year and you can see how much progress he made at the end of the year,” running backs coach Ryan Held told reporters during a Zoom call on Thursday. “It was just more reps he was getting, understanding the footwork and the offense, where the runs could hit. So he’s done a really good job. He’s been a leader in our room. Obviously we’re fairly young experience-wise, so he’s got to be the bell cow. I expect a big senior year for him. He’s going to have to carry a good amount of reps for us, but he’s done really well up to this point. I know he’s excited to keep getting better and get ready for the first game.”
Mills is the starter, but that’s the extent of the clarity for Nebraska at the running back position to this point. The competition behind him is still wide open.
“I think the depth has improved and the talent has improved,” Coach Scott Frost said during his monthly coach’s show on Sports Nightly on Wednesday. “We’re kind of at a point now where we’ve got to decide who the No. 2 back is and who the No. 3 back is and move forward with those guys, and that doesn’t mean others won’t play, but we need to start concentrating the reps on a couple guys.”
Nebraska has a pair of redshirt freshmen, a pair of true freshmen and a group of walk-ons battling it out for spots on the depth chart.
The next-most experienced player in the room is redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson who played in four games and carried the ball 21 times for 64 yards in 2019. Held said Johnson hs probably put on 10 pounds and has improved his physicality, his hands and his knowledge of the offense. Though he didn’t play much, he did gain some valuable experience last season.
“I think when you go through the process, he got to travel on the road, so he got to see what it’s like to got on the road and go through that process,” Held said. “Obviously he was down getting reps on the varsity throughout the year, so he was getting game plans each week. Then he kind of had to be on call. That’s a very tough deal when I’m like, ‘You might play this week, and you might not play this week,’ and it’s kind of back and forth. Then we had injury here, and ‘Oh, be ready,’ then you didn’t play in the game. Psychologically, that’s not an easy thing. When you’re a competitor, you’ve got to be ready to go. We were prepared to burn the redshirt if we had to, and he knew that. But we were able to salvage it which was nice.
“There were ups and downs of being ready and not playing in the game, then he played one rep in a game. It was just one of those weird deals as we got used to how the redshirt thing worked, and my room was just kind of up and down at times with injuries and different things. But he did a really good job.”
Johnson is a change-of-pace type of back behind the more physical, downhill-oriented Mills.
“I think he brings a nice speed factor to it,” Held said. “He’s a guy who can run and give us a threat that can be a big play capability. He needs to continue to keep working and grinding and figuring out where the cuts are going to be and his footwork and fighting through when he’s tired, just like everybody else.”
Nebraska’s other redshirt freshman back, Ronald Thompkins, didn’t get the chance to gain the same kind of experience as Johnson did as he spent most of the season focusing on getting healthy after tearing his ACL as a senior in high school and then suffering a setback in his recovery last year. So far this year, Thompkins has been a pleasant surprise for the coaches.
“Ronald Thompkins, we didn’t know what that would look like with his injury and everything and he’s come back and done really well up to this point,” Held said. “We’ve just got to be smart with him from a reps standpoint to make sure that we watch the pitch count with him, so to speak. But he’s a guy that it’s good to see out there. He hasn’t done anything in a couple years and so he’s been able to, when we’ve done some physical stuff, been able to get out there and take some hits, which is good, and you can see some really good talent there that we’re excited about.”
Nebraska signed a pair of running backs in its 2020 recruiting class, and both Marvin Scott III and Sevion Morrison are currently in the mix for immediate playing time as well.
“Marvin has done really, really well up to this point,” Held said about the bruising back from Florida. “He really runs hard. He’s a guy that’s very physical — you can see in the different pictures, probably, out there, he tweeted out a picture yesterday, he looks like a senior in a freshman body right now because he’s paid the price in the weight room and really put himself in position physically. The biggest deal with him is I just have to keep getting him going from a mental standpoint and footwork, because we have a lot of footwork our guys need to do from a running game perspective.
“Then Sevion Morrison is very talented as well, done a really good job. He’s got a really, really bright future here. He’s a guy that will be in the mix as well. Just like Marvin, he’s a freshman and he’s got to keep learning everything. “
Held said it’s a nice luxury not having to worry about how much a freshman can play before beefing a year of eligibility. He stressed how important depth is going to be this season, and speaking of depth, Held highlighted a pair of walk-ons who have impressed him so far: redshirt freshmen Cooper Jewett and Zach Weinmaster (though Held mistakenly referred to him as his older brother, Jacob, a former walk-on linebacker at Nebraska).
Held reaffirmed that with the improved depth this season, Nebraska plans to keep Wan’Dale Robinson at slot receiver after the dynamic athlete from Kentucky split his time between receiver and running back as a freshman. He was third on the team in carries behind Adrian Martinez and Mills, and though they can still use him in the backfield at times, don’t expect it to be a regular occurrence.
“I’ve got a good group, but like Coach Frost said, we’ve got to figure out how this is going to look,” Held said. “We’ve got great competition. The beauty of it is we have some more time to keep going through practice. You better have a fully loaded room because you just don’t know what’s going to happen with everything going on. It’s the next man up. One minute you might have a full room and the next minute you might have two guys in the room. It’s all hands on deck. You’re never going to feel comfortable this year. You better have everybody ready and that’s been the process of my room is trying to get everybody ready. But we will definitely need to narrow it down as we get closer to Ohio State.”