We continue with our five-part series called “Making The Jump” where we select five Huskers who need to, simply put, make the jump in 2022. That means going from contributor to standout at a position that needs it.
For our third installment, we head to a position ripe with competition this spring: running back. No one truly emerged as the feature back last season. When a couple did—Gabe Ervin Jr. and Rahmir Johnson—injuries hit and set the position back. Ervin was the first true freshman running back to start a season opener in the modern era, but his year came to an end with a knee injury at Oklahoma. Johnson then appeared to be the guy—and gained the trust of the coaching staff after entering the season nearly at the bottom of the depth chart—until injuries slowed the speedy New Jersey native and he missed the end of the Ohio State game as well as all of the Wisconsin and Iowa contests.
The 215-pound Ervin was clearly learning on the job but still looked like he provided an all-around game—he didn’t look like a first-year player when he was picking up blitzes on third down in pass protection. Despite his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame, Johnson ran hard and has speed that others in the running back room do not.
But there was one back that captured the fan base’s attention like no other when was on the field: Jaquez Yant.
At 6-2 and 240-plus pounds, Yant doesn’t move like other ball carriers his size. That was evident during the Northwestern game, where he rushed for a career-high 127 yards on 13 carries. His 64-yarder gave a glimpse into what the Florida native could become: a strong, downhill runner in the Big Ten who’s tough to bring down.
That linebacker Yant ran around? It was Chris Bergin, the conference’s leader in most tackles per game and an All-Big Ten selection. Bergin knows a thing or two about bringing down ball carriers—he had over 350 tackles in his five-year career with the Wildcats—but didn’t look like he anticipated Yant being that quick.
Here are a couple more examples of what it looks like when Yant gets a head of steam:
But as the fan base came to find out, it was a rocky year overall for Yant. There were off-the-field issues that resulted in him being benched against Wisconsin, a game the team really could have used him in. Then-running backs coach Ron Brown touched on Yant’s situation during an appearance on ‘Sports Nightly’ in November.
“Those who really love you will discipline you when they need to,” Brown said. “I love Jaq, and we all do. And we did what we needed to do in terms of the protocols of this university and also our football team. He didn’t do anything really drastically bad, but we have some team rules in certain things. So we needed to deal with that, we needed to pay rent on that. The debt has been given and we move on.”
Yant has the talent to be an effective Big Ten back, there’s no denying that. If he can fix the problems that held him back last season—if he can make that jump and continue to grow, mature and develop as a college athlete—Yant would give the offense a downhill running threat that it sorely misses and needs.
But in order to make that jump, Yant will have to do it in a reworked running back room chock-full of competition. Bryan Applewhite, who spent the last two seasons at TCU, replaced Ryan Held as position coach. The Huskers return every running back except Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III, who transferred to Kansas and Florida Atlantic, respectively. Johnson won’t simply lay down and watch his reps be taken away. If Ervin is confident on that knee and back to being himself, he obviously knows what it takes to win the starting job because he did it last year.
But wait, there’s more.
The Huskers also brought in three more running backs in junior-college product Anthony Grant and high schoolers Emmett Johnson and Ajay Allen. Grant was the No. 1-ranked juco running back in the 2022 class after he rushed for over 2,500 yards and 28 touchdowns in two season at New Mexico Military Institute.
Applewhite is clearly a fan of what Grant brings to the table.
“Anthony’s an explosive kid, he’s got tremendous vision, his start-to-stop for a kid his size is unbelievable for what he can do with the ball in his hands,” Applewhite said on ‘Sports Nightly’ in January. “He’s got incredible instincts, he’s tough, he’s got great hands out of the backfield. I was just tickled to death and excited to get the opportunity to work with him.”
Johnson, a three-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite, was tabbed Minnesota’s Mr. Football and was the only high school running back recruit in the 2022 class until National Signing Day on Feb. 2, when Allen signed with the Huskers. Allen, a four-star recruit according to 247Sports, was offered by Applewhite while he was coaching in Fort Worth and committed to TCU before ultimately flipping to Big Red. He picked the Huskers over the Horned Frogs and Mississippi State.
Feelings will be checked at the door as the running backs report for duty this spring. The level of competition may mean attrition in the group, too. That’s what a 3-9 record in Frost’s fourth year will create.