Zach Duval, you’re up. And if senior running back Devine Ozigbo is any indication of what serious offseason work can accomplish, there’s a lot of potential for this Nebraska team.
Duval, the Huskers’ strength and conditioning coach, had his work cut out for him heading into the 2018 season. The players called his winter workouts tough at the time, which ultimately required Duval to dial it down a bit. Even then, some players struggled.
But Ozigbo ended up being the poster child of what those brutal winter workouts — as well as all the hard work in spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp — could accomplish.
“Something that all of the coaches have talked about is just paying attention to the little things because they all matter, they all count,” Ozigbo said following Nebraska’s loss to Iowa. “That’s one that took me a little bit to learn, took me a little bit to apply to myself and really focus on it.
“Once I got going on it and really working out, it was the little things here and there like not missing this, accountability, just being completetely responsible for what you need to do and doing it. I think that is what helped me out a lot.”
Frost and his staff had no idea what to make of Ozigbo when they arrived at Nebraska. It even seemed like that to start Nebraska’s 2018 campaign. In the first three games of the season, Ogizbo had only 90 yards on 29 carries, averaging 3.1 yards per carry.
And then the attrition came. When players like running back Greg Bell departed, Ozigbo’s role was quickly changed. It could have gone a number of directions too, but Ozigbo took full advantage of the opportunity. In his first start of the season against Purdue on Sept. 29, he had 170 yards on 17 carries, avering 10 yards per carry.
By the end of the season, Ozigbo had rushed for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns in 12 games. He became Nebraska’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Ameer Abdullah in 2014. He also ended with an average of 6.98 yards per carry, which put him at fourth in the Big Ten among players with at least 100 carries.
“I can’t say enough about Devine,” Frost said after Nebraska’s win over Illinois. “When we first got here, I didn’t know what we had in Devine. He deserves a ton of credit for inheriting a new coaching staff, going to work, doing what we asked of him, being patient as we were playing some other guys and he was just in a rotation.
“He persevered through all of that. Sometimes in this day and age we want what we want right now, and when we don’t get it, you leave, or you quit, or you stop working. It says a lot about who Devine is that he kept going.”
Running backs coach Ryan Held agrees. He watched Ozigbo get better and better every single week during the season. So much so, Ozigbo’s 1,082 yards nearly matched his total from his first three years with the Huskers (1,114).
“I think it just shows the kind of character of Devine that at the beginning of the year he wasn’t where he wanted to be, but he didn’t make excuses,” Held said. “Just kept going and when he got his opportunity, has really taken off. He’s really ascended. He’s a guy that really got better every single week, even though toward the end of the year it can be harder to keep getting better, just being fatigued. Not him. He’s taken care of his body and been a student of the game.
“It’s always great to see the good guys have something happen to them like that.”
On Monday, Ozigbo accepted an invitation to play in the 2019 East-West Shrine Game. He’s started to receive plenty of NFL Draft talk, which is a big credit to the work he put in during the offseason and his patience when things weren’t necessarily going his way.
— East-West Shrine Bowl (@ShrineBowl) November 27, 2018
Ozigbo has said he knew he could accomplish what he did this season. He just didn’t necessarily expect it. Looking back on it though, he can see the outcome of all the hard work even if the team didn’t finish exactly where it wanted to.
“It’s rewarding, but I wish it would have turned out better for all the other guys that worked just as hard as me on this team,” Ozigbo said. “We worked our tails off all season, all spring, all fall camp to get here. I just wish it turned out a little better for them.”
It can turn out better. With another offseason under their belts, the Huskers can be even bigger and stronger than they were in 2018. And if Ozigbo is any indication, hard work does pay off.
So, yes — Duval, you’re up. But so is every player on the roster.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.