Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska, Fullbacks, and Unlocking Dedrick Mills

October 02, 2019

Whether it was initially supposed to be just a one-game thing, a wrinkle to use once in a while or a genuine compliment to Nebraska’s pace-and-space offense is beside the point. The Huskers found something against Ohio State in their I-formation and double-wing sets to unlock Dedrick Mills. 

"I was very comfortable,” Mills said.  

Which is a pretty big deal. Mills spent two years in the junior college ranks after a freshman season in the ACC where he was the fullback and a damn good one. Mills earned Freshman All-ACC recognition with 771 yards and 12 touchdowns. He just hasn’t found that same rhythm since coming to Lincoln.

Nebraska went with the flexbone a few times and then lined Mills up as the fullback in the I-formation on others. It wasn’t much but it was enough to hit Ohio State with a look they hadn’t prepared for at all and put the defense on its heels. 

Head coach Scott Frost thought Mills ran hard and he thought the offensive line blocked the ground game well. Mills went for 67 yards and a score on 11 carries. Getting 6.1 yards a run against a defense yielding 2.4 on the season (the ninth-best mark in football) is nothing to sniff at.

“He’s used to a lot of that underneath stuff, the fullback trap and pulling around, blocking the linebacker. It just makes sense,” running back coach Ryan Held said. 

Early on this season, something about Mills in this Nebraska offense wasn’t making sense. Come out of the backfield in passing concepts, run zone, bounce outside, find the cutbacks. It was all stuff he hadn’t been asked to do a ton of to that point. Getting him to be the kind of every-down back some envisioned proved to be a process. 

“I think he has evolved as a player,” his quarterback, Adrian Martinez, said Monday. “It has come at him in different levels. Since when he first got here the learning curve has been interesting for him, and I think he has done a great job of handling it all and just practicing hard. 

“That is one thing that hasn’t changed is that he has been full attack mode in practice and games, and you can tell he is working his tail off. The offense is coming faster and faster for him, and I think he is just becoming a better player with each day.”

Mills showed up to interviews following the Illinois game with a football in his hands, saying he planned to keep it there, high and tight, all week long. He had three fumbles through his first four games at Nebraska and it was becoming something of an issue. 

On Wednesday that week, Mills walked through Hawks with that ball still in his arms. 

He wasn’t playing. 

“I tried hitting it away from him, I came up from behind in the players' lounge and did all that stuff,” Martinez said. “Again, he takes it seriously. It means a lot to him and us as players notice that.”

Coaches do, too. Part of Mills evolution had to factor into the confidence to pull out something “new” against a defense as talented as the Buckeyes’, right? (Mills didn’t put a single ball on the turf against Ohio State, for what it’s worth.)

Nebraska has been saving that. It wasn’t just something they started working on the Monday after Illinois. That was a slow build, waiting until they were confident all 11 could execute without major hiccups. 

Frost showed the offense cut-ups of his own playing days at Nebraska. Even modeled it in practice, according to Martinez. It may be new for the players — Martinez said the last time he ran an under-center option concept was middle school — but it’s not foreign territory for the coaches. 

If nothing else, it’s an added threat to an offense with many. Meaning it’s an extra thing a defense has to prepare for in the weeks leading up to a game. 

“It's not an easy scheme to prepare for, so they probably have to take a couple of periods out of each day to work on that and if they do that, they're not working on other things,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “It gave us a spark and we'll have different elements of that in every game and [that’s] something the team's got to prepare for.”

There are benefits beyond just putting Mills inside a comfort zone, too. The Huskers can go two-tight-end more often, which is something tight ends coach Sean Beckton said they’ve been building toward. They can put a 6-foot-8 Austin Allen in passing concepts (Walters said they’ve been missing that jump-ball threat). They can take away some of the snapping fear center Cameron Jurgens might be playing with.

Mills can also ease Maurice Washington’s burden a little. 

The sophomore has left each of the last two games with little bumps and bruises, things Held called “annoying.” The absence of between-the-tackles running with Washington is starting to become a thing. And, if Frost isn’t at least a little annoyed by Washington’s durability, he sure seems like it. 

 “When he’s on the field we need to keep him on the field,” Frost said. “He’s been knicked up a little bit a couple of times. He’s heading in a good direction, we just need him to be reliable and be there for all four quarters for our toughest games.”

If he is, Nebraska is better for it. Whether that means lessening his load until he’s either 100% healthy or putting some more bulk on his frame, Fullback Dedrick Mills is the stop-gap answer for the interim.

“We’ll see more of that stuff going forward,” Frost said. “I want that to be a piece of what we’re doing. It’s part of what Nebraska has been built on and the fabric of what we are, what we need to get back to a little bit. We have the right personnel to do it. So, we’ll pick our spots but it certainly looked pretty good on the first time out.”

So rejoice, Nebraska fans. Mills may have just revived the Nebraska fullback. At least for a small role. 

“You never know,” Held said. “When we got here everybody thought it was dead, and it might have come back from the dead.”

That does mean blocking for other runners, though.

“I do what's best for the team,” Mills said.

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