Nebraska Football Dedrick Mills Runs with the Ball Against Colorado
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Get Ground Game up and Running Against Northern Illinois

September 18, 2019

Nebraska struggled to get the ground game up and running during the first two weeks of the season, totaling 98 yards at 2.2 yards per carry against South Alabama and 179 yards at 3.9 a pop against Colorado.

Things clicked in week three against Northern Illinois, however, as Nebraska ran for 238 yards on 7.2 yards per carry. Nearly half that yardage came from junior Dedrick Mills who had a breakout performance. After recording just 68 yards on his first 23 carries, Mills exploded for 116 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, bumping up his average by nearly two-and-a-half yards, though he also lost a fumble, his second of the season.

“I thought he was more patient,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “If you saw, I thought his footwork was better, his shoulders were more square, so I thought he was able to hit a back-side cut or two which against Colorado we didn’t. Obviously we’ve got to hold onto the football; we can’t turn the ball over. I don’t care if you run 60 yards. If we run a tempo play you better line back up and keep that thing protected. 

“But I definitely think he made a lot of improvement. He picked up a blitz nicely coming off the edge and then scored on the next play, ran through the smoke on that one zone play that probably week one he wouldn’t have, he probably would have gotten tackled. So it’s progress with him and all of our guys. I just want to see us getting better. When you put together a string of practices and games, we’re just going to keep getting better here. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Maurice Washington added 63 yards and a touchdown on four carries, though 60 of those yards came on one carry. He got banged up a bit later in the game and the coaches pulled him after that as a precaution.

With a big lead late, Nebraska sent in the second unit to close out the game, including true freshman running back Rahmir Johnson. The speedster from New Jersey carried the ball three times for nine yards and was part of a touchdown drive that quarterback Noah Vedral finished off himself with a 3-yard plunge. 

“It was just good to play against another defense besides our defense,” Johnson said. “I haven’t played against another team since December, so it felt good to get the feel for the college football life.”

Held called Johnson’s debut “really good.”

“I thought he made a nice jump cut and then got back vertical and had a 5, 6-yard gain,” Held said. “Rahmir’s getting better every day. I’m telling you, he’s a guy that can do some things and I want to keep getting him going and going and going, because he brings that speed element. He’s getting better with all of his reads and his cuts and his assignments and he really likes football. I have no qualms putting him in, I just want to keep seeing it in practice. But I absolutely think in Big Ten play, he can help our football team and I think he will help our football team. In a critical moment, he’s going to make a big run or a big play.”

Johnson said Held called that 5-yard run he made “smooth” as Johnson got skinny in the hole and picked up good yardage, though Johnson said he was originally looking to run the defender over. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Johnson will leave the more physical running to the 220-pound Mills. Johnson’s speed is his calling card; he called himself one of the fastest players on the team.

“I would probably say I’m like top two, maybe top three,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty up there, which is pretty good as a freshman.”

Johnson mentioned senior wide receiver Mike Williams and junior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle as the other guys in the discussion. Even for someone as fast as Johnson, the transition to playing in Scott Frost’s up-tempo offense is not an easy one, and Johnson said maintaining that speed with everything that he does has been his biggest challenge so far.

“I guess just always running fast,” Johnson said. “I don’t mind running, but just keeping that speed every day at practice even though you’re tired.”

As the Northern Illinois game was his first action, Johnson can still play in three more games while maintaining his redshirt. Whether he lays any more than that is still up in the air.

“You never know,” Held said. “In my mind, I’m getting him to where he can help our football team early on and in the first half. But I don’t make that decision. I’m going to just get him ready to play and we’ll see what happens. But I think he can help us this year because now we’re starting Big Ten play, it’s a big boy league, and you need every guy you have that can help your football team.”

While Held is pushing Johnson along as fast as he can, the staff is taking a different approach with the other freshman running back, Ronald Thompkins. Thompkins tore his ACL twice in high school, including one game into his senior season, and Nebraska is thinking long-term with his development.  

“We’ll see what happens,” Held said. “I think we’re just being smart with him, just making sure the we don’t do anything to set him back. At this point, I don’t know what will happen but I will say he’s probably not going to get much, so we’ll just leave it a that.”

The Huskers will continue to roll with Washington and Mills as a one-two punch, but expect to see Johnson in the mix in at least three more games if not more.

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