The page has almost turned on Week 3 of fall camp for Nebraska and a workhorse tailback has yet to emerge from the rest of the pack.
With juniors Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo, sophomore Tre Bryant and true freshman Jaylin Bradley all fighting for that starting role, Nebraska has what looks to be a solid collection of talent in the backfield. For nearly two weeks, the coaching staff has expressed a desire to find one guy. It still hasn’t happened.
“There’s somebody that can do it, we’ve just got to see them do it,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said last week. “Separate. String great practices together. We need consistency.”
Consistency seems to be the buzz word around fall camp this season for the Huskers, but it will prove important in the backfield. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has a new quarterback in Tanner Lee to game plan around, and, presumably, can rely on the pass a little more than last year. But he doesn’t want to, he wants to be as balanced as possible.
“We have to be able to soften [a defense] up and then get back to running,” he said. “If we can be a good balance of run and then the play-action off of it, that’s when we do our best. So, if we get too one-dimensional either way, that’s not very good.”
Head coach Mike Riley said last Saturday this was the week for the tailbacks. If there wasn’t any separation after this week, he would move forward with a by-committee approach. Langsdorf said that separation has yet to happen, but walked things back a little by saying it’s a hard evaluation to make right now because the real hitting hasn’t started.
“You’ve got to get some live tackling in there to really have a good evaluation,” he said. “When you’re doing things that aren’t live, it makes it hard some times to see how they’re hitting the hole and breaking tackles and taking on those hits.”
But when asked about how each running back is doing, Wilbon was first off his tongue.
“Mikale has done some really good stuff,” he said.
In Wilbon, the Huskers have an interesting look. The 5-foot-9 junior has been seldom used in his first two seasons at Nebraska. In 14 appearances, he has just 24 carries for 124 yards; he has yet to find the end zone. Where Wilbon becomes interesting is in the passing game.
For his career, Wilbon has caught just six balls, but he’s averaging just over 10 yards per reception. With Nebraska looking to beef up its screen game and Tanner Lee looking for quick-hitters more often than not throughout camp, Wilbon could have a significant role.
He thinks he should, and he thinks his big play ability can win him the job.
“I’m pretty much trying to make big plays every time I touch the ball,” Wilbon said. “I feel like I can make big plays catching the ball and running the ball.”
After almost every practice, Wilbon spends time on the Jugs machine, working on his hands. When the backs run routes, he has the fastest feet and the sharpest cuts. His work ethic and penchant for hitting the weight room consistently smacks you in the face the second the pads come off.
Over the summer, he even spent time learning how to better read defenses.
“We’ve got running back routes that we have to read coverage,” he said. “We have to run a route based on like a squat corner or a Cover 2, so our routes change.”
He’s also worked on improving in the pass-protection department. He said he can tell the emphasis the coaching staff has wanted to put on versatile backs this offseason, and he wants to round out every part of his game.
On Thursday, Wilbon got plenty of looks running with the first team, but he might be running out of time to grab the job for good.
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.