Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Sevion Morrison running down the field for kick off drills during football practice
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Greg Austin Excited to Showcase Nebraska’s Running Game

August 19, 2021

Offensive line coach Greg Austin took on the role of run game coordinator prior to the 2019 season. In year one, he helped the Huskers finish second in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State in yards per game and yards per carry.

The Huskers improved their average from 4.48 to 4.82, and Austin wants to see that improvement continue heading into 2021, even though the Huskers lost their second-leading rusher in Dedrick Mills.

“I’m excited, I’m really excited,” Austin said. “I’m really excited to showcase it. I want our guys to be confident, I want our backs to be confident in the holes, I want those guys to be confident in the systems and the schemes and I want our guys to be going full speed, I want us to attack folks. That’s the mindset. We’ve got to attack people downhill. In this conference, the people that win are the people that can run the football consistently.”

The Huskers will continue to mix things up in terms of quarterback runs, jet sweeps and all the other arts of Scott Frost’s offense, but that attacking, downhill running mindset is what Austin wants from Nebraska’s run game first and foremost. His starting tackles, Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran, are on board with that desire based on the “Run the Damn Ball” hats the two of them own. Austin doesn’t have his own hat at this point, but he appreciates the sentiment.

“I don’t know exactly where those hats came from, but yeah, run the damn ball,” Austin said. “Run the football. If you’re an offensive lineman, then you’ve got to embrace physicality and you’ve got to embrace grittiness. There’s no greater joy than taking a man against his will from point A to point B. That’s the mindset. That’s the ‘run the damn ball’ mentality.”

Austin said he thinks Nebraska has the running backs to make that happen so long as the line does its job.

“I like the complement of backs,” Austin said. “We have a lot of them. I tell them all the time ‘Let’s get downhill.’ All of them. ‘Let’s get downhill. Make one cut and let’s go.’ They know it. Coach Held does a great job with the guys. It’s our job to make sure that those guys can get to and through the line of scrimmage, and then at that point in time use your God-given talents.”

The Huskers still aren’t ready to name a starter or provide a depth chart at running back, but offensive coordinator Matt Lubick did say a couple of guys are standing out.

“Sevion Morrison is really jumping out,” Lubick said. “Markese [Stepp], he was banged up in the spring but he’s showing some good things, some of the things we’re looking for as far as a big physical back that we can count on. Gabe Ervin gets better every day and Marvin [Scott] done some good things. So has Rahmir [Johnson]; Rahmir has had his best camp since he’s been here.

“We’re happy with the depth. We haven’t made a decision on who’s going to be the starting back. We will play more than one guy, but we feel like we have — we lost a good player in Dedrick Mills who is already doing things at the next level, but I think we’ll have more depth than we did last year.”

Morrison, Stepp and Ervin seem to be the names that usually come up first when the coaches discuss the running back battle. All three getting carries at Illinois next Saturday seems like a safe bet, but Lubick said they’re getting closer to honing in on who they think will be their go-to back.

“You always want to have depth, and running back is probably the most prone position on offense to getting guys banged up because of what we ask those guys to do and how physical that position is,” Lubick said. “But at the end of the day, you want too know who that guy is when it’s third-and-1 to win the football game. Who are you giving the football to? We feel pretty good about it but we’re not ready to say who that guy is.”

Injury and illness kept Morrison off the field through his first season in Lincoln and limited him in the spring, but he’s healthy and in good shape now and has apparently made a strong case for himself. Listed at 6-foot and 210 pounds, Morrison has the kind of size and versatile skill set that Nebraska wants in a lead back.

“He popped right off the bat,” Lubick said. “He’s another guy that was hurt in spring, so I didn’t really know what he could do. He got his body ready in the summertime so just the way he looked, and when he gets the ball in his hands he can do a lot. He has great vision, he’s a guy we can throw the ball to, very assignment-sound. So it kind of goes back to that consistency thing. He’s done a lot of things well.”

Perhaps the forgotten guy in the room is the one who has been there the longest: Rahmir Johnson. Though he wasn’t ever one of the first names mentioned, Lubick has made sure to include the third-year back in all of his answers about the running back battle.

“Consistency — catching the ball, pass protection, knowing his assignments in the run game, running hard downhill, it’s all those things,” Lubick said about what’s stood out about Johnson. “We ask a lot of our running backs. They can’t be one-dimensional, they have to be complete players. So I think he’s worked on all aspects of his game. He’s a guy too with his experience, he knows the offense. He’s probably a little bit older than some of these guys, so when we add something new it doesn’t really faze him … It’s no his first rodeo, he’s been here a while and it’s showing. He’s not getting complacent either, he’s pushing himself every day.”

The other end of the spectrum is Gabe Ervin Jr., the true freshman who has taken advantage of every rep he’s gotten to show the coaches — including Austin — that he’s ready to play right away.

“I’m pretty confident in Gabe,” Austin said. “Gabe has shown us the ability to be able to work at it continually, and as a freshman you have to take your lumps. There’s going to be some natural mistakes, but he keeps on working, keeps on fighting, and he’s a kid that’s mature beyond his age years interns of mentality. He comes to work every day.”

Ervin enroledl early, but the way he’s seemingly hit the ground running this summer and fall all still impressive.

“The one thing I can tell you right now that’s allowed him to put himself in the position to play is his attitude that he brings to practice every single day,” Austin continued. “I’m not blowing smoke. I don’t see the kid mad or down any day, and that’s natural for a freshman. You miss home, you miss this, there are so many other things going on in your life. There’s natural tendency for you to lag, like ‘Man, this thing has gotten on top of me a little bit,’ that transition from dependence to independence. But he’s handled it well. He makes his mistakes but he doesn’t make the same mistakes twice, and that’s the one thing that I can see as well from the kid is he’s not going to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. If he hits the wrong hole, he’s not going to hit it twice. Good for him.

“I’m excited to see him tote the rock as well as I’m excited to see all of those guys tote the rock. Like I said, Coach Held and Coach Brown do a good job of coaching those guys and I think that’s a room that’s going to showcase their talent this year.”

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