Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Running Back Rotation Remains Open After Season Opener

August 31, 2022

Nebraska’s running back rotation has been in a state of constant change over the past few years, and it’s a question that once again was prominent this offseason.

After the Huskers’ season opener, there’s still much to be settled.

Transfer Anthony Grant led the charge for the group on Saturday, and it was a successful outing. The junior finished with 19 carries, a number only matched once by a Nebraska running back last season, 101 yards and two touchdowns. The highlight of his day was a 46-yard touchdown run in the third quarter which gave the team an 11-point lead.

Behind Grant, Ajay Allen and Jaquez Yant received three carries each for a total of 12 yards.

Despite that statline, the run game still became a point of contention following the loss. In the postgame press conference, head coach Scott Frost said his offensive staff needed to be more creative, then clarified that Tuesday to specify creativity in the run game.

“We’re better at running back, there’s no doubt about it, but in the Big Ten it’s hard to just turn around and hand it to a back and think you’re going to be real consistent,” Frost said. “I think I was referring to it coming off the game, having a few more things in the run game that are schemed for the particular opponent.”

When asked about Frost’s comments, offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said at Wednesday’s press conference that the team needed to be better in every aspect, including play calling.

Nebraska did get notably creative at a couple points in the game, with wide receiver Trey Palmer taking two carries, one of them going for 12 yards. and the other for a loss of four. Along with that, backup quarterback Logan Smothers came in for a single play and recorded an 8-yard rush. Both Palmer’s 12-yard run and Smothers’ run had 15 additional yards tacked on due to a penalty as well.

The Huskers did still have struggles in the run game as implied by Frost. Outside of the long touchdown run, Grant averaged just over 3 yards per carry. Whipple said the team had two “explosive” runs, presumably referencing Grant’s 46-yard scamper and Palmer’s 12-yard carry. The team didn’t have any other runs over 10 yards. Whipple said he wants to have seven or eight explosive runs each game, and that even little mistakes can stop that from happening.

“That’s just kind of the way offense is,” he said. “You can have 10 guys doing the right thing and one guy’s a little off and that’s what happened I think a little bit in our run game.”

It seems unlikely that the distribution of carries stays the same moving forward at the running back spot. The Husker depth chart lists five running backs as possible starters — the three who got carries on Saturday along with Gabe Ervin Jr. and Rahmir Johnson.

The two who didn’t receive carries were somewhat glaring omissions on offense given their roles last year and talk from coaches through the offseason. Ervin led Nebraska in carries through four games, although he suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game. He made a full recovery over the offseason and was in competition for playing time.

He should receive that time sooner than later, according to the offensive coordinator.

“I think you’ll see Gabe a little bit more,” Whipple said. “Last week was my decision on that and he’ll be in the mix.”

After Ervin’s injury, Johnson became the team’s lead running back in 2021. He ran for 495 yards and four touchdowns, along with catching 16 passes for 197 yards and two scores.

Johnson entered this season as a “wideback” — playing both running back and wide receiver — so a lack of time in the backfield wasn’t necessarily surprising. However, he received no offensive snaps against Northwestern, while Brody Belt, who has a similar role, saw the field and caught two passes.

Once again, the coaching staff still plans on getting him involved in future games.

“We needed some help we thought with depth outside and with our depth at running back,” Frost said. “I want Rahmir (Johnson) to be able to play both, and he took a bunch of reps outside and he has gotten really good at that, but it has been a bit of a learning curve. I think he’s just got caught between playing outside and playing in the backfield, but he is good enough. We need to find some roles for him and make sure he has some touches.”

Nebraska could potentially find itself in a situation similar to last season, where it used numerous running backs over the first half of the year before settling on Johnson as the lead. Grant seems to be the current top back, but coaches are keeping the rotation open to change.

“Running back is one of the places we have a lot of guys that deserve to play,” Frost said. “There is a couple that I do not think played enough or very much at all. That is going to kind of be a week-to-week thing a little bit unless somebody really takes it and runs with it.”

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