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Photo Credit: John Peterson

‘Lion Mentality’ and Nebraska’s Pursuit of an Aggressive Running Game

August 03, 2023

Don’t mistake Nebraska’s unified “run the ball” mantra for simplicity. The Husker offense is going to be dynamic, powerful, versatile and fluid. At least that’s how the offensive coaching staff sees it.

Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield told reporters on Thursday that they’re looking for a “position-less offense.” That applies to receivers, running backs, tight ends and fullbacks moving into a variety of positions to fit different scenarios. Nate Boerkircher, for example, told reporters he’s confident despite the adjustment. Offensive lineman Ben Scott is inspired by the work among Nebraska’s fullbacks. Running back Gabe Ervin Jr. bulked since the spring to embrace a renewed physicality. Rahmir Johnson, working exclusively at running back now, is also enjoying this fresh start. Unable to see much of the field last year, Johnson is comfortable with his teammates and comfortable in an offense with expanded definitions for players.

“I’m just trying to do everything,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to put everything together this year.”

Satterfield and running backs coach EJ Barthel complimented Johnson for his fearlessness. Ervin also gave Johnson a shoutout for his work ethic in practice while the sophomore from Harlem called Ervin the most vocal leader in the running backs room. There’s mutual admiration there, as there is with most of the running backs in the room, because Barthel pushes their limits. He described preseason camp so far as doing the detail parts after laying the foundation in spring. Barthel knows the school’s storied history of running backs. And he has a clear vision for what running backs at Nebraska will do to get back to that level.

“We’re going to run the ball with a lion mentality,” Barthel said. “What that means is everything we do, we’re going to attack it with a lion mentality. Wake up a lion and do lion things. Lions’ going to hunt, if he doesn’t kill, he doesn’t eat. That’s the reality of how we want to run the football. Everything we do needs to be with physical intent.”

Just as head coach Matt Rhule spoke of earning the right to walk into Minnesota confident, Barthel said the Huskers need to earn every yard. That begins with running the ball with confidence and physicality. The new staff arrived and assured each component of the program, including drills and reps, are applicable to the season. Backs endure constant drills on pass protection, enduring contact, ball security and striving for additional yardage. They also take reps on special teams, something Barthel said is an important avenue for players to show their abilities.

Barthel explained how Nebraska’s backs are being coached to consistency. Not every run is going to be a splash play. Each run has the potential to go for 25 but not all do. Don’t force it, Barthel said. What is important is attacking each run “with lion effort and lion demeanor.”

Nebraska’s run attack involves hitting defenses from multiple angles. Johnson and Ervin are comfortable running between the tackles. Scott said the chemistry on the offensive line, with communication and meeting the program’s standards, lays the foundation for the offense moving forward. The offensive line is concentrated on kicking defenders out and opening lanes, Scott explained. That opens opportunity for the fullback to attack and sometimes that full back is actually a tight end. Satterfield and Boerkircher both said the Huskers will likely play with multiple tight ends on the majority of snaps. So they need to be ready to pull, block, catch and even run the ball if asked.

Barthel wants power football with execution, adjustments and patience. He called a zone read an expensive run. He explained that a zone read takes a significant time investment to implement and execute, both inside and outside. That doesn’t mean the Huskers won’t attack the fringes but Barthel is deliberately teaching backs to be patient and wait for those holes to open instead of forcing something. Then, when the Huskers do attack between the tackles, they’re doing it with purpose and power of an offensive line, tight ends and fullback before the 200-pound ball carrier even gets to the line of scrimmage. And who that ball carrier is could be anyone, at this point.

“Right now we’re really going to see who represents the brand of football that we want to put out there,” Barthel said. “So, really, we’re still in that earning phase right now. No one has really separated themselves as the clear guy. The reality is, we’re going to have to use multiple guys throughout the season.”

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