The week has finally arrived. Nebraska’s 2021 Red-White Spring Game is on Saturday. In the run up to the game, we’ve got a few storylines to potentially watch for this weekend, expanded on a little more than normal. One per day. Here’s the first:
What kind of role awaits Jaquez Yant?
Dedrick Mills in his first five games played of the 2020 season (he missed Illinois and Iowa): 205 yards on 59 attempts.
Dedrick Mills in his last game as a Husker: 191 yards on 25 attempts.
The big bruiser of a running back averaged 3.5 yards per carry before exploding against Rutgers in the season finale. One could argue Mills’ production couldn’t be completely explained by poor performance in 2020 because he spent a portion of it injured, which would be a completely fair argument.
But Nebraska’s other running backs also averaged 2.6 yards a carry (Marvin Scott III, on 24 attempts), 3.8 yards a carry (Rahmir Johnson, on eight attempts), and 4.8 yards a carry (Ronald Thompkins, on five carries).
The rushing numbers were good as a team, but the individual production came largely from Mills’ one game, the two Husker quarterbacks improvising, and Wan’Dale Robinson deking and dragging defenders.
“We’ve got to get more production out of that position,” said running backs coach Ryan Held earlier this spring. “We have to. We’ve got to be able to run the ball and be consistent in seeing our cuts and being able to really be an asset to our offense.”
At the outset of spring, Held was incredibly encouraged by the group he had to work with. In years past, his room has been, to varying degrees, unavailable to him in the spring; this time around, Nebraska thought for a moment it might have all six of its scholarship running backs up and ready to go.
Not so fast.
Now, Nebraska hasn’t directly addressed injuries in this room, so it’s unclear how much time has actually been missed, but of the two practices the media has been able to watch, Johnson and Sevion Morrison have missed both, and true freshman runner Gabe Ervin Jr. missed the most recent.
Stepp is also out for all of spring ball after undergoing surgery.
In the void created by inconsistencies in availability, walk-on Jaquez Yant has made a push for more playing time. A second-year freshman from Tallahassee, Florida, Yant is far from a typical young walk-on player in stature.
“I don’t know how much he’s weighing, but he’s probably 245, 250 (pounds),” said Husker secondary coach Travis Fisher said. “He’s a problem.”
Fisher played a role in Yant’s recruitment to Nebraska, so he knows the player well for someone who isn’t directly coaching him up every day. Yant went to Fisher’s high school. Academics played a role in his path toward Lincoln. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do since he’s been here,” Fisher said, though.
As a senior, Yant ran for 583 yards and 10 scores. As a junior, he ran for 908 yards and 10 scores while toting an 8.4 yards-per-carry average. He wasn’t necessarily relied upon the way big backs can be at the high school level.
Yant arrived last July, and coaches said he was out of shape then. Now, it appears as though he’s really reshaped his body. Yant looks sturdy with a quick burst. He’s become one of the larger talking points for the offense.
“Big, fast back,” line coach Greg Austin called him. “He plays downhill with his pads. He’s going to bring some thunder to you. Hell, the offensive linemen, we’ve got to get our ass out of the way because he might run us over. He’s taking advantage of all the reps he’s received and he’s done well. He’s been active. He’s doing a good job overall. We’ve certainly enjoyed having him back there. Just a pretty solid guy, solid back.”
The biggest question surrounding all of this: is Nebraska actually enthralled by Yant or is this just a spring talking point?
It’s interesting that Yant has been able to cut through the noise during a time when nearly everyone who would be involved come the fall is on the board this spring.
We might be able to get some insight into his standing in the room by watching what happens with the other guys.
Of course, if Yant is on the same sideline as starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, that spells good things. If a good chunk of the other running backs play and Yant still features, that would seem a positive sign as well. If several of those scholarship guys sit out the game, it might muddy the waters a bit more.
But then again, one of the best abilities at the skill positions is availability, and Yant has been there each time Held calls his name.
Watch for the big back on Saturday. It’ll be hard to miss him, at 6-foot-2 sporting a No. 0 that somehow makes him look even bigger. Who’s to say Yant doesn’t have a show-out type performance in the scrimmage? A performance that says he’s a force to be considered in this running back race?
Held wants more than one running back to carry the load this upcoming season. Even if we don’t necessarily find out what the pecking order is there, we might find out how many options he has to work with. If Yant is one of them, it’ll be a nice success story to follow throughout the summer and into the fall.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.