Last week, the Huskers altered their normal practice schedule in order to stage a scrimmage of sorts, giving the players a chance to show what they can do outside of drills or short live periods as the spring game approaches.
Running backs coach Ryan Held said he wasn’t blown away by what he saw from the offense, and specifically his position group.
“There was some good stuff,” Held said. “I don’t think, offensively, it was to our standard for the whole scrimmage. [Maurice Washington] did some good things. Wyatt Mazour did a few things. He’s been able to go out there more consistently. It was probably just flat after that, just not as consistent. But when you take two days off, you have to be able to come back on Saturday and the timing has still got to be there. Obviously offense is a timing-based deal so we have to keep going out here and grinding it out and getting more consistent in what we do.”
Held said he saw more of that inconsistency at Monday’s practice as well.
“Today’s practice we came out flat but then the last half of practice was really, really good,” Held said. “Unfortunately in a game, you can’t come out flat because you can be down 28-nothing and we can’t be doing that. It’s like a boxing match — we’ve got to come out swinging. That’s where the inconsistencies are and no excuses — we’ve just got to come out and put together four quarters instead of two-and-a-half quarters in a practice.”
Mazour is one of just three scholarship running backs currently on campus. Washington has been a limited participant in practice as he deals with his legal situation. Mazour has been practicing, but the former walk-on is only at about 85 percent health-wise, according to Held.
“He’s just been kind of banged up, so he hasn’t been able to be out there full-speed,” Held said. “But Wyatt knows what he’s doing, he can give us the element of flexibility. He could play the Duck position if he had to. He’s got good hands, he’s patient in his approach, he’s got really good footwork. And people say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Well, every one of our plays, if our footwork’s wrong, that really can mess the play up … I hammer that daily, daily, daily on footwork, shoulders squared, understanding what the play is, what’s happening up front, and he does a really good job of that. Being patient, smooth through the hole, speed through the hole, different code words that we have with our guys.”
The third scholarship back is sophomore Jaylin Bradley. The Bellevue West product failed to work his way up the depth chart last season and took a redshirt. Held has said this is a big spring for Bradley, but his locker has still been located in the auxiliary locker room to this point and he is still struggling with inconsistency, according to Held.
“I’ve seen it in spurts,” Held said. “I’ve seen things I really like and then I’ve seen things I don’t like. He has to continue to understand what’s happening up front with the blocking scheme. I’d like to see him play lower; I think he runs too high. I used the Roger Craig analogy — he's got to get low and get his knees up and run through the smoke we call it, through the hole. He was just a little too high on some stuff in the scrimmage components on Saturday.
“He knows what he’s doing. I’d just like to see him be more consistent in his running style of not dancing, not going sideways. At some point you just have to go north and get what you can get. I’ve got to keep instilling that in him on a day-to-day basis. I’ve seen some things I like and then there are some things that he has to keep getting better at.”
Bradley isn’t the only back who has done a bit too much dancing in the backfield, and the defense they’re facing on a daily basis has been a significant part of that.
“Depending on the concept of what the play is, our defense wants you to go lateral to the sideline, so we can’t get caught up in letting them do that to us,” Held said. “There might be an element of we go lateral toward the sideline for a half-step and then we’ve got to get back north. We just can’t be bouncing stuff, we have to be able to get back north and run through the smoke and if it’s 4 yards, we’ll take 4 yards. Our defense does a good job. They’ve done a good job this spring of making us go more sideways. We’ve just got to not let them do that to us.”
Beyond the three scholarship backs, the one player who’s name has come up repeatedly is redshirt walk-on Brody Belt out of Millard West. He got another shout-out from offensive coordinator Troy Walters on Monday.
“He’s got a good approach to it,” Held said. “He’s patient, but yet he’s able to see what’s happening up front and then be able to attack where the hole is. He’s made some plays. We’ve run him on some pass routes; he’s been able to get open, he’s been able to beat some guys on wheel routes and chip routes and different things. And he’s got good speed, he really does. He paid the price in the offseason, put on some more weight and he knows what he’s doing. That’s the thing — we’ve got to have fast blinkers, guys that know what’s happening, be able to see the signal, line up fast and go and he’s able to do that. He’s been very consistent, knock on wood.”
With a lack of bodies available in terms of true running backs, hybrid players Wan’Dale Robinson and Miles Jones have gotten a chance to get some snaps out of the backfield, although minor injuries have kept the coaches from seeing what they truly have in the two freshman (one true, one redshirt).
“They’ve been both kind of banged up a little bit, which has limited them at times,” Held said. “But the thing is they know what they’re doing. The biggest thing is do they know what they’re doing and can they do the technique within each play? I think we’ve seen that. Just when you get a little banged up it’s hard because there’s no rest to be able to get fully healed so you just have to kind of grind through it. We’ve got what, five more practices left? Or four and the spring game? Then they’ll have this summer to build themselves back up and get ready for fall camp. You definitely can see where those guys can help us and give us some multiplicity of things they can do.”
Consistency in terms of running the ball the right way has been lacking, but ball security hasn’t.
“One thing I’ve really been impressed with is the ball hasn’t been on the ground for us at the running back spot,” Held said. “I think we’ve only lost maybe one ball the whole spring in terms of us fumbling the football. Last year, we only had one that we actually lost in terms of us losing the football on the ground where the other team got it and that was the first drive of the year against Colorado. Now, we had two or three balls on the ground, but we got them back.
“I take a lot of pride in that, protecting the football. At UCF our last year I think we only had two or three fumbles. I don’t over-emphasize it but as long as we don’t turn the ball over at the running back spot, from our piece and we can control that, that helps us a lot because of all the movement of the ball with what we do offensively.”
With less than two weeks of spring ball remaining, Held’s challenge to his players is simple: bring it each and every day.
“Being more consistent and competing more every single day,” Held said. “If things aren’t going right, it can’t be the coaches fixing it, it has to be the leaders on the football team fixing it. Like today, we came out and it was not great to start, then we kind of duh-da-duh-da-duh then boom, the last half of practice was lights out. In a game, you don’t get to re-do it. You don’t get to hit the restart button like you do in these video games these guys play. You’ve got to come out, first play, and let’s go. But it can’t be us coaches always fixing it, it’s got tone these guys so that’s what we’re trying to develop in our team — leadership with the older guys.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.