“I wish Greg the best in his future.”
That was running backs coach Ryan Held’s official statement about the departure of Greg Bell last week.
Bell was part of the three-man rotation in the backfield through the first few games. His decision to transfer leaves the Huskers with senior Devine Ozigbo and freshman Maurice Washington in the backfield. Those two will continue to split the majority of the carries moving forward, but Held said they still have some depth in his room.
“Wyatt [Mazour] has done a really good job and [Mikale] Wilbon has stepped his game up,” Held said. “I feel like I’ve got four guys that are on alert five so to speak and ready to go. We don’t have any qualms putting any guy in but I think those two, barring an injury, will get a lot of the reps moving forward.”
The running game wasn’t a big part of Nebraska’s game plan against Wisconsin last week with Ozigbo and Washington each only carrying the ball five times, but they both made the most of those carries as they averaged 5.8 and 5.4 yards, respectively. After missing the Purdue game with an illness, Washington popped against the Badgers, particularly as a receiver as he caught four of his five targets for 53 yards. Despite his limited touches, he caught the eye of Pro Football Focus’s college evaluators.
The Week 6 Team of the Week in the Big Ten – on offense pic.twitter.com/YKBLYkChpw
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 9, 2018
“Obviously you can see he can do some things,” Held said about the true freshman. “He’s a tough matchup. He’s obviously a good running back but then he can bring a good receiving element. He can present mismatch problems. He played more than he’s played in the past but that’s his role moving forward. Him and Devine will get a lot of the load and so we’ll keep building them up at practice to where he can take on that kind of role. I think he was at 40-plus plays; he’s normally been in the 20s so we doubled his workload. We have to be smart to build him up the right way so he can go out there and play for four quarters.”
Washington is listed at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, making him the lightest player in that running back room despite being the tallest. His academic situation prevented him from making it to campus for summer workouts so he entered the season behind the eight-ball.
“Obviously he’s a guy that will get bigger in our program through nutrition and weight lifting over the years,” Held said. “He’s where he is right now but he’s obviously very talented. We’re building him in on some special teams stuff as well and we’ve got a lot of games left and we expect a lot of big things out of him moving forward.”
The coaches want to make sure not to put too much wear and tear on his body early on, but Washington made it clear on Twitter he’s hungry for as many snaps as he can get.
Held also mentioned a two-back set is possible with Washington sliding into the Duck-R spot, but since Tyjon Lindsey’s departure slot receiver J.D. Spielman has been handling most of the snaps in that hybrid backfield position. Spielman has only logged three runs this season, but his presence in the backfield puts some extra pressure on the defense and the sophomore exploded for 209 receiving yards against the Badgers (see PFF College tweet).
“JD is obviously very talented,” Held said. “He brings a lot to the table. That position is very critical in this offense. We really need it in recruiting moving forward, which we’re working really hard to solve that. JD’s been able to make a lot of plays as an inside slot guy and doing different things in this offense.”
Mazour, the former walk-on turned scholarship player from Albion, Nebraska, has also played some both in the Duck-R spot and as a traditional running back.
“He can play multiple positions, obviously,” Held said about Mazour. “He knows the offense. He can play running back, he can play that spot, and Miles Jones is coming along, He hasn’t played yet, I don’t believe, but he’s a guy that’s getting better in this offense. Day by day, he’s getting more comfortable. We’ll see where the stretch run takes us. We want to be smart in playing guys and redshirting and all that kind of stuff and we want to make sure we manage our roster accordingly.”
Jones certainly seems to be headed for a redshirt season, but Held’s quote implies fans will probably see the 5-foot-8, 175-pound hybrid receiver-running back out of Miramar, Florida, at some point this season.
Nebraska has a few dynamic options in the backfield, but there’s more to playing running back than what one does with the ball. Pass protection is just as important for the offense to flow smoothly.
“I think Devine is really, really good,” Held said about his group’s pass protection ability. “The others are getting better, but I think if you look at Devine, if you look at the reps, he’s done a really good job of picking up the guy he’s supposed to pick up and his guy not making the play. We had one cut block on third down, the first third down or second third down, where we whiffed that we needed to fix, where we were cutting up front that we’ve got to get tightened up. But for the most part, he’s done a really good job and Mo actually, on one of his plays, they brought a guy and he picked his guy up. For the most part, I think we’re going where we’re supposed to. Obviously it’s a work in progress with our technique and fundamentals.”
True freshman often have a rude awakening when they get to college as blitz pick-up isn’t something a lot of talented running backs have to worry about in high school. Washington is learning on the fly, but Held said he’s been encourage day what he’s seen so far.
“It’s just a constant challenge of him being great,” Held said. “You can’t just be a runner, you have to be able to pass pro, you have to be able to run routes, you have to be a five-tool player in this offense. You don’t want to be a liability where when people scout you they say ‘Well, he can’t pass pro, so now we have an advantage.’ He’s got to be able to do it all just like all our guys do. So any deficiencies we have, we have to continue to work on them in technique and fundamentals, knowing who they have, knowing that there could be a mistake or two but the more that he’s in the program, the more he gets stronger, the more he gets more comfortable, he has really long arms which can bode well for pass pro because he can create separation. He’s getting better. The thing about him is he’s not afraid. You saw the shot he took on the sideline on the targeting call — I mean, he bounced right back up. He’s a dog. He’s not going to be afraid of anything.”
Despite the limited burn the backs got against the Badgers, they should play a big role on Saturday. Northwestern is middle of the pack in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 133 yards per game and 4.01 yards per carry.
“Northwestern, I’ll tell you, they’re a well-coached football team, they’re strong, they’re physical, they’re smart,” Held said. “They don’t beat themselves kind of like Wisconsin. Their front four is just strong, tough guys and then their linebackers, No. 42 [Paddy Fisher] is a really good player, — I think he’s a sophomore captain. He’s a 6-4, 240 guy that can run and is tough. You know where they’re going to be, but it’s hard because they’re so well-coached and they just do a really good job within their scheme.
“They’re just a really good football team in the sense of they play it how you’re supposed to play it: tough, physical, smart, disciplined — where we want to get to.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.