Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s 2023 Spring Football Positional Reset: Running Backs

February 15, 2023

In total, Nebraska’s new coaching staff added 39 new scholarship players in the 2023 recruiting class. This puts the program’s scholarship numbers over triple digits in spring camp. With winter workouts ongoing and spring ball likely to impact who stands out to this coaching staff, Hail Varsity is taking a deeper look at what each position looks like right now.

Previous resets: Quarterbacks

New Nebraska running backs coach E.J. Barthel, offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield and head coach Matt Rhule all looked at the tape in agreement. They didn’t need to pursue a running back in the transfer portal. They thought the returning group of backs can implement a physical rushing attack.

“We understand to be successful in the Big Ten you’ve got to be able to run the football because you’re going to play late in the season in some interesting weather games where you can’t throw the ball,” Satterfield said. “We’re going to start from the standpoint of just being physical and playing good, clean football.”

Five backs immediately stand out on the roster. One of them emerged the team’s definitive No. 1 last season. Anthony Grant returns after running for 915 yards on 218 carries last season despite not clearing 40 yards in five different games. He also caught 18 passes for over 100 yards. In all those touches he lost just one fumble. Barthel said “the sky is the limit,” in reference to Grant’s potential. Grant arrived at Nebraska last year as the top running back from junior college.

Ajay Allen is back after missing the final eight games last season recovering from collarbone surgery. Allen averaged 5.8 yards per carry on 33 attempts in four games last season. Barthel spoke highly of the explosive back nicknamed “Quick 6” in high school. He provides more elusiveness and an explosion of speed from the backfield. Gabe Ervin Jr. tallied over 100 all-purpose yards last season, building off an injury-shortened 2021. He became a valued component in the backfield despite missing four games with injury. The Buford, Georgia native could grow his role in 2023. Emmett Johnson redshirted last year after playing in just four games. Barthel specifically mentioned Johnson as a back that impressed him, having watched spring tape from 2022.

Then there’s the curious case of Rahmir Johnson. The former 4-star recruit had 119 carries in 2021, his third season on campus. Last year, however, he had just 19 carries. There was talk last fall camp of including Johnson in the run and pass game but those plans never materialized. Barthel complimented Johnson’s explosiveness so he could be more involved in 2023. The running backs coach also remembered recruiting Johnson out of high school.

This running backs group also includes walk-on depth with Nebraska natives Matthew Schuster (Cozad/Ashland-Greenwood) and Trevin Luben (Wahoo). Isaiah Harris (Omaha South) and Aiden Young (Elkhorn) were listed on Nebraska’s 2023 roster but have since been removed.

“Overall impressed, truthfully,” Barthel said of his impressions of the returning backs. “I’m just really excited about the group. There’s a lot of potential there.”

The Husker coaching staff added a high school scholarship recruit to the room in New Jersey native Kwinten Ives. He’s an explosive multi-sport athlete who is likely a developmental project. Ives showed unrivaled speed among New Jersey football players in his senior year. He then scored his 1,000th career point on the Palmyra High School basketball team this winter.

Nebraska also gained two walk-on running backs in this last recruiting class. One is physical Elkhorn South senior Cole Ballard and the other is versatile back Gage Wager, son of tight ends coach Bob Wager. Wager averaged 12 yards per carry with kicking duties at Martin High School and chose Nebraska over preferred walk-on roles at Texas Tech and Texas. Ballard shattered Class A scoring records last season before a foot injury against Creighton Prep. He chose Nebraska shortly after Rhule took over as head coach.

“I’m excited to work with that group,” Barthel said. “It’s really something special.”

The offensive coaching staff shares a philosophy in utilizing the huddle, multiple tight ends and physicality up front. Satterfield pledged the offense will run the ball. Barthel, a former fullback, is excited about the prospect of developing a fullback. There’s no established fullbacks on roster but Seward native and former Nebraska-Kearney Loper Trevor Ruth announced he transferred to Lincoln. He’s a potential fullback.

The program Barthel referred to as “the original RBU” could benefit from a renewed rushing focus. Nebraska finished No. 100 in the country’s rushing statistics last year with 123.3 yards per game. That was less than one-win Northwestern (125.1). The Huskers also finished in the back half of the country in rushing attempts (420) and yards (1,480). Coaches believe a unified vision for the offense could spark a resurgent season.

“I think we have to have an identity on offense of what we are going to do,” Rhule said. “When you are trying to figure out if you are a throw it or run team, you put those guys in hard positions.”

Rhule and Satterfield also have experience coaching the offensive line. Satterfield admitted that experience made him consider putting the line in a better situation to be successful. Their focus on the offensive line (more on that in the coming days) could also benefit Nebraska’s stable of running backs.

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