You see it on the first drive of the second half. Nebraska marches down the field toward a score, and on an 11-play possession, Dedrick Mills gets four carries. He accounts for 20 yards, including the first play of the series, an 8-yard carry that lets Nebraska turn up the tempo and opens up the playbook. You get the hard-nosed running with Mills, but you get the other stuff too.
On the touchdown, a 1-yard cakewalk for quarterback Adrian Martinez, the ball-carrier walks into the end zone untouched. Mills came over and completely stood up perhaps Purdue’s most important defender, linebacker Derrick Barnes.
“Some people can look the part. I look good compared to a lot of linebackers when I match up with them,” Mills said Monday. “It’s just all about that mental thing, like your heart. Do you got enough heart to go in and lay a hat to this guy to help your teammates out? That’s just me. I’m wanting to do anything and lay it on the line for my teammates every play.”
Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said Tuesday you can tell the character of a football guy by how well he blocks for his teammates.
Mills embraces things like pass protection and lead blocking.
“We do pass protection like at least every day of the week,” he says. “We are hitting the bag or hitting on a few of the linebackers. Working on that so much—at least three, four times a week—just helps us in the game. It’s all about how you do it. Don’t launch too much. Don’t lean too much. Just have that perfect squat position so you can be ready to power clean the guy when he comes through the hole.”
Nebraska missed its senior running back.
The numbers—47 carries, 155 yards, three scores—don’t tell the whole story. Mills’ value extends beyond how many times he runs the football.
“Fiery personality, and that’s the way he is every day in practice,” Lubick said. “He’s a vocal leader and so he just gives us juice. His energy is contagious.”
Added Mills’ head coach, Scott Frost: “He’s just always happy, always has a smile on his face, is always positive to be around and I think that impacts the rest of the team in a positive way. (He’s) just such a likable guy and a good teammate and does whatever he needs to do for the team.”
The Georgia native exited Nebraska’s Nov. 14 contest against Penn State in the first quarter. His first action back was this past Saturday against Purdue. Mills was on the sideline in street clothes for a Nov. 21 loss to Illinois, but watched a Nov. 27 loss to Iowa from home.
“That first drive against Penn State, one person stood me up and another person came and hit me on the side of my leg. I just felt a little pop in my knee,” Mills said. “I knew I could finish the drive and make a few more plays. But I just knew if I would have kept going the rest of that game, I probably wouldn’t have been able to play the rest of the season.”
At the time of the injury, Nebraska was rather coy about what had actually happened. That’s generally the case unless an injury is season-ending, but Mills’ status became a week-to-week thing. Nebraska certainly would have preferred to have Mills available with so much inexperience at running back behind him.
To his credit, though, Mills gave those guys—redshirt freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins, and true freshmen Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III—a vote of confidence.
“Just told Coach, ‘I feel confident in the younger guys. You can put either one, Marvin or Rahmir, and I feel like the game would still be the same,’” he said. “So that’s what happened and the young guys got in and did what they were supposed to do.”
Johnson filled in admirably against Iowa, with five carries for 23 yards and a go-ahead score in the third quarter of the game from 12 yards out. He’s making progress, showing more of an ability to read and make the proper cuts.
Scott was more limited (seven for 13 yards) and he didn’t appear against Purdue.
Mills just has a different level.
“We know that he’s going to see a hole and he’s going to hit it,” said right guard Matt Farniok. “He’s not a dancer type. When he makes his decision, he’s going to hit it. It’s also just nice that he’s an older guy. He knows the offense pretty well. So, we know what we’re supposed to do, and he knows what he’s supposed to do. It’s just a nice kind of confidence of ‘Hey, I’m going to open up this gap,’ and I know he’s going to come bursting through it with everything he’s got.”
Minnesota, Nebraska’s opponent for what might be Mills’ last regular-season game at Memorial Stadium, has been dreadful defending the run this season.
The Gophers are the only team in the Big Ten allowing more than 5 yards per carry this season, and the gap between them (6.82 allowed) and 13th-place Maryland (4.89) is nearly the same as the gap between Maryland and first-place Wisconsin (2.95). In fact, no one playing college football this season has allowed more yards per carry than Minnesota has.
As the offense trends up, how will Nebraska choose to attack that weakness? What role will Mills play? Minnesota ran it down Nebraska’s throat a season ago in Minneapolis; will the Huskers try to return the favor? We shall see. One thing’s certain though: Nebraska will be happy to have Mills as an option.
“To see him run as hard as he runs,” Lubick says, “especially coming back off his injury, which was not easy for him to do that, was really impressive.”
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.