Restoring Nebraska football’s overall standards has come up quite a bit from Scott Frost and some assistants since they took the job. In various press conferences and radio interviews, some variation of the phrase, “The Nebraska I’m used to,” has been uttered. Former Nebraska offensive lineman and current offensive line coach Greg Austin mentioned to me that he often brings up the tradition of "the pipeline" and what it means to Nebraska football.
Another tradition that is closely related to the typical strong offensive line play is having great running backs. Nebraska was once in the conversation as a school that could claim to be "Running Back U" but that is no longer the case. Nebraska has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since the 2014 season when Ameer Abdullah tallied 1,611 yards and 19 touchdowns. In the three seasons since that feat, Nebraska’s leading rusher has run for 765 yards in 2015, 879 yards in 2016 and 493 yards last season.
During his pre-spring press conference, Scott Frost was asked about making the running back position what it used to be back when he was a quarterback here.
“Our offense is always going to be committed to the run first. To varying degrees, we’ve thrown it and run it depending on our talent," he said. "We can’t go as an offense and really no offense can go if we can’t establish the run. I’ve been part of this offense for a long time, and we’ve had guys like LeGarrett Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas, Royce Freeman, Adrian Killins (Jr.), and Otis (Anderson) down in Florida and those guys all became big-time players and players people recognized because of the style of our offense. There is great opportunity here for running backs, today and in the future. We’ll let those guys battle it out and determine who the best guy is and see if we can fix the 1,000-yard problem.”
The coach tasked with both finding players like the ones Frost mentioned and developing them when they get to campus is former Nebraska split end Ryan Held. The new running backs coach told me what he looks for in running backs from a physical standpoint during last week’s assistant availability.
“Well from a physical standpoint, obviously someone that can really run," Held said. "That’s number one. Number two, who can make somebody miss in the open field, not just a straight-line runner. There’s a combination to that. Three, what’s their body type like? We’re into recruiting smaller kids, but what’s his upside in terms of does he have a frame you can put weight on? In this conference we can have some smaller guys, but you can’t have too many. You don’t want to be limiting yourself in terms of a physicality standpoint. Can he catch? I have to have a guy that can catch the ball out of the backfield.
"Then you peel the onion back with the coach. Is he selfish, is he coachable, and what are his grades like? Does he have a chance to be successful in college? All those factors go into it. I look at competition, too. If you recruit a kid that plays against high-level guys and he’s running away from them, you think that kid can really get it. A lot of factors go into it. A guy that’s smooth and natural, doesn’t have to stop his feet to make a cut. He can make one cut, he can make one cut and move, get vertical and really accelerate. We look for all those things.”
Junior-college transfer Greg Bell is already on campus, took part in winter conditioning and is full-go for spring ball. He figures to be a big part of Nebraska’s running game this season. On the way this summer is Maurice Washington, who checks every box that Held has, and Miles Jones who will start off at wide receiver and work his way into the running back room gradually per Held.
As for the guys who were already on the team when this staff arrived, Tre Bryant’s health is one of the true x-factors for this season. When healthy he looks like an upper-tier Big Ten back but the question is if he will ever return to full strength following his mysterious knee ailment. There are major questions as to if Devine Ozigbo or Mikale Wilbon fit this offense, so this spring will be huge for them. Jaylin Bradley was offered by this staff when it was at UCF and he has the type of pass-catching ability this staff desires in its backs.
Last season, UCF averaged 5.17 yards per carry to Nebraska’s 3.51. Getting closer to last season’s production in Orlando will be key as the Huskers break in an inexperienced quarterback no matter who wins the job. There will certainly be a lot of players for Frost, Walters and Held to choose from on their way to reclaiming the title of "Running Back U."
Greg is the Recruiting Analyst for Hail Varsity and has covered Husker athletics since 2013. He has always had a passion for sports while growing up in the Chicago area. As he got older and had to hang up his cleats and sneakers, he realized his passion for sports went beyond just watching and attending games. He has covered many events from the Rose Bowl to championship boxing matches. If he’s not talking sports, he’s hovering over his grill. He is married to an amazing woman, Kim, and they have a dog that barks when Greg yells at the TV during games.