Nebraska's Backfield Has Taken Some Hits
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Backfield Has Taken Some Hits, but Key Huskers Step Up

October 31, 2019

After getting banged up during Nebraska’s pre-bye week loss at Minnesota, freshman Wan’Dale Robinson was a question mark heading into Nebraska’s game with Indiana over the weekend.

When Indiana lined up to kick off, however, it was Robinson back deep to receive the kick for Nebraska. He set new career highs with 28 touches including 22 carries on the ground.

The coaches talked about Dedrick Mills’ importance leading up to the game after Maurice Washington’s departure from the team, yet he finished with eight carries for 30 yards, the same 3.8 yards-per-carry average that Robinson had.

“First half I think Mills got more than Wan’Dale, and then the second half Wan’Dale, toward the end he kind of got in a rhythm and made some plays,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “There was just some stuff we really wanted to get done and Wan’Dale just fit some of the new concepts we had in there. 

“This game here, both guys are going to have to be ready to play. There was a hot hand element to it too, kind of a feel, so that’s our job to kind of see how the flow of the game went and what we were wanting to get done. That’s just the way it turned out; sometimes it can go the other way. Anybody that goes out there, you might have to play more plays than you’re normally used to and that’s just part of the deal.”

Mills had all eight of his carries in the first half, while Robinson had 11, and both of them averaged the same 3.8 yards per carry they finished with. With Washington out of the picture, Held said the Huskers will continue to rely on both of them as well as some others (mostly walk-ons) for depth.

“Dedrick’s fine; he’s a guy we’re counting on and so those two guys and obviously Rahmir [Johnson] has two more games he could potentially play in, so we want to be smart with his redshirt situation,” Held said. “Then you have Wyatt [Mazour] and you have Brody Belt, then we brought up Zach Weinmaster from the minors, he’s gotten a few reps this week too just to make sure from a depth standpoint we’re where we need to be.”

Robinson showed he’s capable of carrying a heavy load, catching all six of his targets for 71 yards in addition to running the ball 22 times for 83 yards and a touchdown. Saturday was his third game with more than 150 yards from scrimmage and his fourth game in the past five with double-digit touches.

“We knew when we recruited him he was a dog and he embraces that, he wants the ball, he wants to be out there,” Held said. “We’ve just got to be smart not to be pounding him up there 30 times a game, that wouldn’t be doing him justice. But he’s a guy that just gives you a multiplicity of options with match-up issues. We did well on screens and different things that we can present with him out there.”

Held said he’s had Robinson in his meeting room a bit more in recent weeks with Nebraska’s increased need for him in the backfield. 

“He’s able to get with me on some meeting time, ramp that up just a little bit, just because he’s playing a little more running back than he is receiver,” Held said. “Obviously last game he played mostly running back, but he still has to know it all. He’s so smart and versatile, you can tell him once and he’s able to pick it up which is very critical in this offense. We’ve got to have guys that can do that.”

Nebraska doesn’t have a ton of scholarship depth for the Duck-R role with Robinson handling most of those snaps, especially with Washington gone. Mazour, another option there, is in a walking boot.

“Obviously you’ve got Wan’Dale that can do it, Belt that can do it, those two guys,” Held said. “Wyatt can do it. So we’re still OK there. Attrition’s a natural part of how I think today’s college football world is, so you deal with it just like you do injuries, just like anything else. You move on to the next guy, and that’s why our walk-on program is so critical because you get that thing right and some of the guys really working hard in your program have opportunities to move up when you lose a guy or two, whether it’s a scholarship kid or a walk-on guy. It is what it is, you move on and next guy up.”

The Huskers have seemingly used the Duck-R spot a lot more this season than they did last year, though perhaps it hasn’t been quite as prevalent as it was for Scott Frost’s staff at Central Florida. Even so, Held said it continues to be a key part of Frost’s offense.

“I think there’s elements of it that we have,” Held said. “Injuries and this, that and the other have kind of, maybe a game or two, curtailed it. But for the most part, we were able to utilize that position. It’s a very critical position in our offense, so it’s big in recruiting to find that guy. You can see the opportunity for that guy, it’s a fun position to play in this offense because you can be a running back, you can be a receiver, you can be a wing, we can line you up almost like as a tight end-wing. It’s endless what we can do.”

Nebraska has made it clear that maintaining true freshman Rahmir Johnson’s redshirt is a priority. The Huskers have four games remaining and Johnson can play in two of them while maintaining four more years of eligibility. At this point and with the state of the backfield, however, the coaches don’t have a set plan for when he might play. They’re rolling with the punches.

“We’re kind of playing it week by week,” Held said. “I wish we could do that, we just aren’t able to do that just due to injuries and this, that or the other. Every week he’s ready to go for everything. Last week, he was prepared to go depending on Wan’Dale’s situation and obviously Wan’Dale was able to go, so we were able to save another game. It’s kind of a week by week situation and we’ll see how it goes. He’ll be prepared every week and we’ll see how it works itself out.”

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