Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Running Game Impresses as Backfield Battle Continues

August 12, 2022

Scott Frost’s staff stumbled into Devine Ozigbo as a productive feature back in their first season in Lincoln.

Ozigbo came off the bench in the season opener but eventually took the starting job and ran with it en route to a 1,082-yard, 12-touchdown season. Since then, the entire running back room has barely been able to top those numbers.

With Ozigbo leading the way in 2018, a collection of six scholarship backs combined for 1,798 yards and 16 touchdowns on 283 carries (149.8 yards on 23.6 carries per game) while racking up 6.35 yards per tote.

In 2019, five scholarship backs combined for 1,189 yards and 13 touchdowns on 237 carries (99.1 yards on 19.8 carries per game). Dedrick Mills let that backfield with 745 yards and 10 touchdowns on 143 carries (5.21 yards per carry), though he was incredibly up-and-down in terms of production and effectiveness from week to week.

In the shortened 2020 season, four scholarship backs combined for just 512 yards and four touchdowns in eight games (64 yards on 15.1 carries per game, just 4.23 yards per carry). Mills led the way again, but injuries impacted his season and he didn’t even clear 400 yards while losing half a yard off his average despite recording two more carries per game.

This past season, six scholarship backs combined for 1,272 yards and 14 touchdowns on 288 carries (106 yards on 24 carries per game). The volume matched that of 2018, but the backs averaged just 4.42 yards per carry.

Gabe Ervin Jr. opened the season as a starter before suffering a season-ending injury, at which point Rahmir Johnson took over. Johnson led the Husker backs with 49.5 yards on 11.2 carries per game (495 yards and four touchdowns on 112 total carries in 10 games). He averaged 4.42 yards per carry.

Ervin averaged 31 yards on 9.3 carries per game, rushing 37 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns (3.35 yards per carry) in four games before the injury. Jaquez Yant was the most efficient back, averaging 6.26 yards per carry, but 127 of his 294 yards came in the Northwestern game. He totaled 167 yards on 34 carries in the other six games he played, and the only other time he logged double-digit carries was the season finale against Iowa with Johnson injured, and he produced just 44 yards on 13 carries in that game.

Markese Stepp (45 carries), Sevion Morrison (30 carries) and Marvin Scott III (17 carries) all averaged under 4.0 yards per tote, and all three departed from the team after the season.

Adrian Martinez led the Huskers in carries in each of the past three seasons, and additionally, seeking more effectiveness out of the backfield, the Huskers have turned to players such as wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and quarterback Luke McCaffery to supplement the running game.

Nebraska needs to get more out of the running back position, which is why Frost hired Bryan Applewhite away from TCU. Last season, the Horned Frogs’ top three backs combined for 1,717 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 6.34 yards per carry.

Applewhite isn’t the only new coach who will impact the running game; offensive coordinator Mark Whipple is going to be the one calling the plays this season. Pittsburgh was undoubtedly a pass-first team under Whipple last season, but Pitt’s hand-off running game was still more effective than Nebraska’s last season as six backs combined to produce 1,817 yards and 18 touchdowns on 382 carries, averaging 4.76 per tote. Running backs averaged 129.8 yards on 27.3 carries per game for the Panthers with the top three backs each topping 100 carries and 500 yards, utilizing more of a rotation than one featured back.

Anthony Grant, one of the most productive backs in junior college last season, and freshmen Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson have joined the returning group of backs including Johnson, Ervin and Yant, and last week Applewhite described the competition for snaps in the backfield as “unbelievable.” Applewhite called finding a No. 1 running back a “huge deal” and said he thinks whoever emerges from the competition will be a “real good running back.”

“Who shows me who wants it every day, who’s going to be the most consistent every day, and who’s going to be the most physical every day?” Applewhite said. “And now I’ve got them where they are striving towards that. Let me tell you that: they are striving towards that, which is making my decision hard and I told them, I said ‘I don’t want an easy decision.’ I don’t want that.”

There’s only so much coaches can learn from standard drill work, however, especially when it comes to the running game. That’s where live reps come into play, and the best opportunity for those comes during team scrimmages, the first of which took place last Saturday. If that scrimmage was the first real test for the running backs, it sounds like they passed with flying colors, at least if you ask somebody on the other side of the ball who was trying to tackle them.

“I thought specifically our running backs played really, really well,” Nick Henrich said on Monday. “Just a lot of physicality from both sides and I think that was really the thing that coaches were wanting to see. So it was nice to show out to them and obviously we still need to improve on it, so we will.”

Though he didn’t call anyone out by name, Henrich did elaborate on what he saw from the backs that had him so impressed.

“They’re just hitting gaps really hard downhill, which is something that they’ve been improving on throughout spring, and just playing really hard, which is obviously encouraging going into the season,” Henrich said.

One of the big guys up front tasked with opening up holes for the backs to run through was proud of the offense’s showing in the scrimmage as well, and is hoping to replicate that effort in the next scrimmage.

“That running game was awesome, and I felt really good about running backs because I’ve always felt good about this group of running backs,” left tackle Teddy Prochazka said on Wednesday. “We had some injuries with them last season, but I think right now, where we’re at with those guys is the sky’s the limit this season. And I think next scrimmage, we just kind of have to go out and do the same thing. Consistency — you can’t just do a one time, you have to do it every time.”

An inability to consistently win in the trenches has had as much to do with the team’s struggles to run the ball over the last few years as a lack of talented ball-carriers, and the offensive line is still very much a question heading into 2022. However, if that unit can take a step forward, the Nebraska coaches and players seem high on the backfield’s ability to take advantage.

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