Despite now having a clear lead back, Nebraska’s running back room continues to be in flux.
Running backs coach Ryan Held was one of four assistant coaches let go last week, and his unit arguably has seen the most change of any this season for the Huskers.
Five running backs have carried the ball at least 30 times this season, and three have started games. Two of those backs, however, are Gabe Ervin Jr. and Sevion Morrison. Ervin suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma nearly two months ago that will likely keep him out for the rest of the season.
Head coach Scott Frost said Monday that he doesn’t expect Morrison, who missed the Ohio State game, to return to the program. Morrison confirmed soon after on Twitter that he has entered the transfer portal.
“I am very thankful for my brothers, the lessons, and the relationships I’ve built along the way,” Morrison said in his post. “I wish my brothers and this program nothing but success.”
Nebraska’s running backs have declined statistically since Frost and Held arrived in 2018. Devine Ozigbo ran for 1,000 yards in that season, then Dedrick Mills took over and led the unit with 745 yards in 2019 and 396 yards in six 2020 games. The yards per carry for the lead back has decreased each year as well.
This year, Rahmir Johnson has 495 rushing yards in 10 games while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Markese Stepp and Jaquez Yant are the other two remaining backs who have already made significant contributions this year, each showing flashes but lacking consistency.
Even with staff changes, the group is staying focused.
“Really not much has changed, you still got to go to practice every day and practice,” Stepp said. “Still give the same effort even though your position coach isn’t here.”
Ron Brown will now take over in coaching the running backs. He held that same position in the program from 2011 to 2014, when he coached successful Husker backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah.
Brown was brought back to the program in 2018 as the director of player development, and moved to a senior offensive analyst role this year.
“It’s not a bad replacement, you’ve got an experienced guy who knows what he’s doing, been around the game for so long, so much knowledge,” Stepp said. “And then outside of football, really good guy, helps you with things off the field as well.”
Stepp, despite being second in carries among the team’s active running backs, is looking to work his way back into the lineup. He had 30 carries in Nebraska’s first three games, including 18 for 101 yards against Fordham. Since then, he’s seen little time on the field. His five carries against Northwestern all came late in the game with the Huskers up by over 40 points.
He got snaps late in the loss to Ohio State, but was mostly pass blocking. Held was a “big reason” Stepp came to Nebraska in the first place, but now has a new opportunity with Brown coaching the group.
“It’s been very frustrating, honestly,” he said of his recent lack of playing time. “But you find out who you are, and it’s been a dark time, but I feel like when you’re down, the only way to get you out of the position you are in is continue to attack it… I feel like I’ve been playing well, if the opportunity comes, I’ll be ready.”
Johnson, who has more carries than the next three Nebraska running backs combined, will likely continue to be the lead back in the final two games. Outside of that, Yant and Stepp will continue to try and work their way into the lineup.
Frost also mentioned Marvin Scott III as a player that could find playing time down the stretch. He played in five games last year, but only saw the field this season in the back half of the blowout win over Fordham. He finished that game with six carries for 30 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s probably going to be a combination of those guys and there’s some reps to be had right now,” Frost said. “Rahmir has certainly done a good job, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a guy like Marvin or Stepp got an opportunity this week and maybe some other guys. We’ll have to piece it together.”
The Huskers have struggled to piece together a consistent rushing attack this year. That challenge won’t get easier, as Nebraska plays the top rush defense in the country this weekend and another top-15 unit in the season finale. Stepp said the key to overcoming the challenges Nebraska has faced and will face is unity.
“The best way is to come together,” Stepp said. “If we start going a separate direction, we’ll continue to lose, and that’s something that we don’t want to do. I think we want to finish this season out on a high note.”