When Matt Rhule and E.J. Barthel evaluated Nebraska football’s running back room, they lost some interest in the transfer portal.
The Husker head coach and running backs coach have both talked about the value of a strong run game — an area of inconsistency in recent years for Nebraska — since their arrivals in Lincoln. Despite the prior struggles for the program, they feel they can accomplish that goal with the players currently on the team.
In a press conference Thursday, Barthel said he came away impressed after watching the tape of players who will be returning.
“I’m just really excited about the group,” he said. “A lot of potential out there in how they run the football and I’m excited to work with the whole group. Really am.”
Three current Husker backs have experience in a starting role for the program. Anthony Grant took on that role in 2022, while Gabe Ervin Jr. and Rahmir Johnson led the backfield at different points in 2021. That also doesn’t include Ajay Allen, who received significant carries behind Grant before suffering a season-ending injury early on.
Barthel gave his rundown of those four, along with redshirt freshman Emmett Johnson. Among his praises, he said that Allen is “dynamic” and Johnson has “elite speed.” Grant amassed over 900 yards last season, the most productive Husker running back season since 2018, and his new coach called him a powerful runner with a lot of potential.
Most of the contributors in the room have stayed with the team, although Jaquez Yant transferred in the offseason. New coaching staffs can often come with players leaving the school, but Barthel re-secured them through connecting with the players right away.
“It wasn’t a whole lot of recruiting,” he said. “To be honest, it was more so getting down, the first order of business when I got here was from Coach Rhule and it was to get with those guys and make sure we put a face on a face and get my own impression of who they are.”
The running backs coach said he values communication, and that was also shown when he talked about his last job. Barthel was the running backs coach at UConn last season, and got choked up for a moment talking about that group’s growth and effort over the season.
“I appreciate those guys,” he said of the players he coached for the Huskies. “All the guys I’ve coached, they’ll be special to me for the rest of my career.”
On a more technical level, Barthel will be bringing along more things from his experience at UConn. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield recently mentioned how he plans to have the offense use a fullback, and Barthel — formerly a fullback himself — is on board. Robert Burns played the position for the Huskies last season, running for 374 yards on 74 carries.
Of course, there’s significant historical precedent at Nebraska with the fullback and a strong running game in general. The position coach is aware of this, calling Nebraska the “original RBU” and listing off a number of previous Husker greats at the position. He said that he’s excited to find a fullback for the Huskers.
Early on, Rhule and offensive coaches have been on the same page in talking about making the run game a priority. It’ll be a while until that has the chance to come to fruition on the field, but Barthel mentioned his anticipation multiple times over the course of his availability. He’s worked with much of Rhule’s staff previously, and said they’ve been getting along well in looking to accomplish their goals.
“The biggest thing for us is, we’re people coaching people,” Barthel said. “The number one thing is communication, and being able to communicate whether it’s easy conversations or tough conversations, and that goes right into coaching. I think that’s the reality, and we’re gonna do a great job pushing each other as staff and we’re gonna do a great job pushing these players and I really can’t wait to get to work.”