It’s understandable Gabe Ervin Jr.’s name might slip your mind when discussing Nebraska’s crowded running back room.
Last year the Georgia native became the first true freshman running back to start a season opener in the modern era of Nebraska football. But his season came to an end in the third quarter of the fourth game against Oklahoma. Ervin took a handoff from quarterback Adrian Martinez and fell to the grass untouched, clutching his right knee.
Ervin’s numbers through four games—37 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns—won’t wow anyone. Running behind an offensive line that had its blocking issues, he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry against both Illinois and Fordham. The Buffalo game was his best statistically: 10 carries for 56 yards and two scores. But it’s important to remember he was a true freshman playing his first season of college football. It takes time to get the hang of things.
He felt like that was starting to happen, too.
“The Oklahoma game, I was just starting to get more adjusted and the feel of it, college football,” Ervin said on ‘Sports Nightly’ last week. “And now, game one against Northwestern, I’m ready.”
Ervin attacked the rehab process and came out better on the other end. The biggest obstacle to clear was getting his right quad muscles back to full strength. That meant different single-leg workouts and building the muscles up to where they were before the injury.
The focus wasn’t just on his knee, though. The second-year player worked on his entire body this offseason and wound up gaining 10 pounds of good weight. The 6-foot Ervin is currently weighing in at 220 pounds after spending last season at 210.
“I just knew there was no other choice, it was either put in the work now or never,” he said. “So I just put the same attitude that I first came in to rehab, and it worked out good for me. Now I’m back fully healthy, 100%.”
Ervin didn’t go through spring ball but is fully cleared now, according to ‘Sports Nightly,’ which makes Nebraska’s running back situation all the more intriguing. The top four backs from last season return in Rahmir Johnson (112 carries, 495 yards, four touchdowns), Jaquez Yant (47, 294, one), Markese Stepp (45, 177, two) and Ervin.
“Health-wise I feel better than I was before,” Ervin said. “My knee is stronger and it’s ready to be put to work.”
First-year running backs coach Bryan Applewhite is tasked with finding which backs can help the offense the most. To help accomplish that, the former TCU coach wants to create as much competition as possible. The addition of Anthony Grant from New Mexico Military Institute, the No. 1-rated junior-college back in the nation, as well as two true freshmen in Ajay Allen, who Applewhite flipped from TCU on signing day, and Emmett Johnson, last year’s Mr. Football in Minnesota, should help bolster the competition.
“Coach Applewhite is an amazing dude,” Ervin said. “Ever since he came through the door, he set that example of the Nebraska culture and how it’s supposed to be on and off the field, and I’m just so happy to work with him and have a winning season with him.”
In the spring, Applewhite said his first depth chart won’t list a starter and backups. Instead, they’ll be filled with ORs next to the names. The goal is for him to view his running backs as 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D.
“If I only have one bell cow for the University of Nebraska, then I didn’t do two things,” Applewhite said. “I didn’t do a good-enough job of recruiting and I didn’t do a good-enough job developing them. With running backs, it’s not if, it’s when you get hurt. You have to have at least three.”
Of course Ervin wanted to be on the field last year, but watching the games from the sideline gave him a different point of view. It helped him view things differently, and that’s going to help him this year as he continues to grow and develop.
“I now look at the game in a whole different perspective, on and off the field,” Ervin said. “I don’t take it for granted anymore. I go out there 100%, like it’s my last. And that’s how I approach the game now.”
Ervin considers himself a downhill runner. That’s why he wanted to add those extra 10 pounds to his frame this offseason. Ervin said offensive coordinator Mark Whipple is installing plays and concepts from under-center formations, which would be quite the change at a spread-heavy place like Nebraska.
That OK to Ervin, though. It fits his running style better, he said.
“I’m more hungry than I’ve ever been before,” Ervin said. “Especially with the incident that happened last year, I’m ready to go get it and go get after whatever’s mine.”