Nebraska Cornhuskers running backs coach Ryan Held prepares a drill during practice
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Looking at True Freshman Running Back Production to Set Expectations for Husker RB Gabe Ervin

April 25, 2021

Can Nebraska rely on a freshman running back? At one point the talk of the spring, Gabe Ervin Jr. provides a good deal of intrigue, but if Nebraska actually reaches a place where it’ll be turning to a first-year player come the fall, that decision will carry with it a number of questions. 

Throughout the early parts of spring ball, and really still to this day, the running back room has been a position of hyper-focus for those looking from the outside in. The group needs to be better on the whole, position coach Ryan Held has said, and with the departures of Dedrick Mills and Wan’Dale Robinson, Nebraska needs to find someone this offseason who can carry the load. 

Held, in fact, wants more than one someone. The entire discussion was dropped in a blender when it was revealed that Markese Stepp, a transfer brought over from USC to compete for the starting job, would miss the entire spring after undergoing surgery. 

Nebraska didn’t seem terribly worried at the time of the announcement, with head coach Scott Frost saying he’d be back by the summer. Stepp arrived from Southern Cal with an injury, and NU felt it best to take care of the fix and recovery now. If Stepp is back to 100% when fall camp starts, he may open training camp as the presumptive No. 1. 

But with that presumptive No. 1 on the shelf from the outset of spring ball, Nebraska likely hoped someone else would make a run at the job. 

“What does it mean to you? Are you going to take more time to be a student of the game? Because those are the guys who are going to have the best chance of putting themselves in a position to be successful,” Held said. 

“We can’t just have one guy, we’ve got to have multiple guys to execute our offense. Obviously, when it is all said and done and we get ready to play play Illinois, it’ll shake itself out. I’m not ready to anoint anybody yet, but that’s the beauty of spring ball, there’s a lot of opportunities for good reps and getting guys better.”

Of the two practices media has been able to observe, neither third-year redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson or second-year freshman Sevion Morrison has practiced either time. Third-year man Ronald Thompkins also missed the first one. Ervin, a first-year player from Georgia, looked good initially and then sat out the open practice. 

Early returns on Ervin were glowing, perhaps more so than any of the other running backs. 

“He’s got really good vision and he’s really smooth in what he does,” Held said. “He’s slippery. He can get through there on different things, he catches the ball well. It means something to him. He wants to be really, really good. He’s mad when doesn’t execute a play right and that’s what I want. I want guys where it bothers the heck out of you if you don’t do it right.”

Scott Frost says Ervin acts like a grown-up. His maturity is one of the things Held liked about him while recruiting him to Nebraska. At the end of the day though, he’s still a first-year player. “So it might be three good things and one thing we got to fix,” Held said. And you can’t speed up time.

“It just takes time to be able to learn what’s happening pre-snap, what’s happening post-snap, where the ball might hit, where our pass protections are, the timing of screens,” Held continued. “You’ve got to be able to do a lot as a running back here, so it just takes time.”

If Ervin is ready to play when the season rolls around, how much can fans reasonably expect to see from him? If he has outworked the Thompkins and Marvin Scotts of the room to be right up there with Stepp, what kind of production can he offer Nebraska?

I was curious, so we took a look at the first years of more than 400 scholarship running back signees to join Power Five programs (plus Notre Dame) in the last five years, 442 to be exact. 

What can be expected? That was the central question, and considering the sample size, the thinking was this could be somewhat informative. 

The average season throughout the entire pool: 31 carries, 169 yards, 1.4 touchdowns. 

Nebraska has had it both ways so far under Frost and Held’s tutelage. 

In 2018, a lanky, late-arriving Maurice Washington carried the ball 77 times for 455 yards and three scores. He was a high-level recruit, the highest-rated of the true running backs Nebraska has signed. In 2019, Wan’Dale Robinson played double-duty as a wideout and tailback, carrying the ball 88 times for 340 yards and three scores. 

Thompkins redshirted his first season without a carry while rehabbing an injury. Morrison did the same while also battling COVID. 

Johnson had 21 carries for 64 yards and a score as a true freshman. 

Scott had 24 carries for 62 yards as a true freshman. 

It seems exponentially more likely to have a Johnson or a Scott-level season as a first-year running back than not. Of the 442 players in the data set, 61.8% if them (273) had less than 100 yards rushing as first-year players. 

A little over a third of all the running backs didn’t carry the ball a single time (155). 

(It’s worth pointing out that the redshirt rules changed midway through the time frame we’re looking at; in 2018 players were suddenly allowed to play in up to four games while maintaining a redshirt. Eighty of the 155 players not to log a carry did so after the redshirt rules changed, 75 did so before.)

Only 11 running backs had 1,000 yards rushing as a first-year player (2.5%). The usual and expected names are in there—Jonathan Taylor, AJ Dillon, JK Dobbins, Justice Hill, Cam Akers. But, this group wasn’t just a who’s who of 5-star prospects. 

Interestingly enough, Akers and Dobbins were the only two 1,000-yard rushers who were also top-247 recruits. Stevie Scott did it at Indiana. Jermar Jefferson did it at Oregon State. The correlation between high-profile prospect and high-level production wasn’t as strong as one might expect. 

The set includes 36 running backs who were top-100 recruits, and of those 36, the average first year was 58.6 carries, 349.7 yards, and 2.9 scores. But guys who fell into this group only supplied five of the 25 best seasons. 

Interestingly enough, only 29.6% of freshmen running backs found the end zone multiple times in their first year. Even if they played, the touchdown rate was surprisingly low. Only 11 of the 442 had double-digit touchdowns. 

Here’s a breakdown by opportunity:

  • 1-28 attempts (about two a game over a full regular and postseason): 142 players (32.1% of the field), 60.4 yards produced on average, high of 245 yards
  • 29-100 attempts: 106 players (24.0%), 316.3 yards produced on average, high of 703 yards
  • 101-200 attempts: 34 players (7.7%), 750.8 yards produced on average, high of 1,403
  • 201-plus attempts: five players (1.1%), 1,445 yards produced on average, high of 1,977

Those five at the very tip-top of the table had an average national 247 ranking of 770, so anything is possible. 

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of role Ervin can find for himself if healthy.

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