Much like the second-story overhang on the east side of Memorial Stadium, Nebraska’s football team is currently under construction. Players participate in specific positional drills like running through the gauntlet and fighting through contact. Moments later in the drill circuit, they could be working on how to pick up a fumble on the run.
Running backs coach E.J. Barthel said the group is still in the development phase. As talented as Nebraska’s running backs are, keys to developing that talent lays in the details. He explained that involves a lot of teaching, while acknowledging that teaching may come with some intensity.
“I’m pretty intense, as you can tell, in practice,” Barthel said after Tuesday’s practice. “We all, Coach Rhule, myself, we all have a high standard of what we expect from our guys. I am pretty intense in practice, I know that. The No. 1 thing is showing how much we care about them as well. That was our priority this offseason, making sure they understand we’re here for their development. We care for them.”
Barthel said he’s focusing on those fundamental levels of teaching with this group. He mentioned how, despite their output, no back at Nebraska has significant experience. Rahmir Johnson has seen limited action over two years, Ajay Allen showed promise before getting injured last year, Gabe Ervin Jr. developed into a solid second option but didn’t get the carries in last year’s offense. Anthony Grant’s 2022 season was the first time he ran the ball consistently at the Power 5 level. Barthel reiterated he’s coaching all of them with the same high standard to build a foundation this spring so they can execute consistently.
Nebraska’s running backs coach shared his belief that running starts with mentality. He wants backs he coaches to run with purpose and intensity. He wants them to pass block and move out of the backfield with intensity. And he wants it consistently so every opponent on their schedule knows what they get when the Huskers step off the bus.
“When you go to a store and you buy a Coca-Cola, you know know exactly what that bottle is going to taste like,” Barthel said. “When you see our running backs, I want us to have a certain DNA that you know exactly what you’re going to get.”
Special teams coordinator Ed Foley is also coaching the basics in the game’s third facet. The Huskers typically run through special teams in the beginning portion of practice, working on kickoff returns Tuesday morning. Foley said they hadn’t done much kickoff work before but he wanted kickers and punters to work in the elements. Coaches made an emphasis for long snappers to get their heads up faster on Tuesday.
Grant, Billy Kemp IV and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda all returned kickoffs on Tuesday. Coaches walked players through their various return plans, players moved through them at half-speed and then executed at full speed. Those three aren’t likely the only returners and Foley likes competition in the return game.
“Anywhere you’ve got competition where you’ve got guys pushing each other,” Foley said, “it’s going to make us all better.”
While not competition, Foley also acknowledged the coaching staff holding each other accountable. Specifically, with special teams, Foley mentioned that he and a few analysts and assistants will talk during or after drills. One might not like the placement of the shield around the kicker. And if any coach, from head coach Matt Rhule along the coaching chart to an analyst brings up a concern, Foley appreciates it. He sees the detail, foundational work not just being instilled to the players but the coaching staff as well.
“We had that conversation, we’re going to go look at that on film,” Foley said. “But he’s not going to stand out there, say the shield looks wrong and not say anything. I want him to say something and we have that relationship.”