Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Coaching Staff Determined to Run the Dang Ball

January 13, 2023

Being a ball carrier can mean a lot of things. Planning to run the ball can mean even more. The first thing that came to Nebraska running backs coach E.J. Barthel’s mind was the mentality. It takes a special mental approach to willingly throw your body towards 11 defenders with the intention of going through.

Barthel called the running back the ultimate team player. The person on the field in that position in a game needs to run, pass block, protect the ball and become a vital member of special teams. Coaches already harped on increased athleticism and physicality in the special teams unit.

Mentality is also the first thing Barthel looks for when evaluating potential running backs. A mentality of running with the intent of staying up. Nobody can tackle me. A sense of violence to inflict punishment on those who try.

“To me, that’s the biggest thing I’m looking for in guys,” Barthel said. “I’m looking to make sure we’re striding with every run. I think, in the run game, if you’re able to run the ball effectively you’ve got a shot to win the game.

“You take the soul out of the defense if you’re able to do that. Dominate the line of scrimmage, which will be one of our principles here. If you can do that, it’s more of a mindset thing than a physical thing.”

Of course, there are athletic measurements that come with that. And running backs of a certain size are built to absorb and inflict hits more than others. Barthel said it’s his job as a coach to ensure their eyes are active and know where to run the ball once they get to that point.

He also supported offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s intention to use a fullback. Barthel said on Thursday he “can’t wait to get his hands on one.” He played fullback for injury-plagued seasons at Rutgers and UMass.

Barthel’s vision of a run offense at Nebraska isn’t just the rallying cry of a positional coach for that position. Satterfield pledged a week ago to run a pro-style offense with tight ends, a fullback and—perhaps most importantly, running the football. Satterfield said it’s essential to winning in the Big Ten. Barthel, a former recruiting coordinator at Penn State, is aware of the pride and tradition that comes with the conference. He’s aware of the storied history of backs in the conference and how reliable they become in November when the mercury drops and clouds gray.

“We understand that to be successful in the Big Ten you’ve got to be able to run the football,” Satterfield said, “because you’ve got play late in the season in some interesting weather games when you can’t just throw the ball all over the field.”

Despite having a running back who many said was among the best in the country, Nebraska ran for just 1,816 yards all season. That’s—significantly—less than any non-COVID-shortened season since 2017. In 2021, for example, the Huskers ran for 2,451 yards. That’s down from 2,784 yards in 2019 and 2,508 in 2018. Nebraska’s 420 rushing attempts was also its lowest since 2017. Current NFL running back Devine Ozigbo led the Huskers with 493 yards on 129 carries that year. He led the team in rushing by over 100 yards despite starting in only three games.

Nebraska’s offensive system underwent massive change in that time. The 2017 season was the last for Mike Riley as head coach, third with Danny Langsdorf as offensive coordinator. (Langsdorf is the current offensive coordinator at Temple, small world.) The program had three offensive coordinators since then: Troy Walters, Matt Lubick and Mark Whipple. Walters lasted two seasons before he went to the NFL, Lubick lasted two seasons before his ousting (he’s an assistant at Kansas now) and Whipple arrived to bring a Kenny Pickett-Jordan Addison offense to revive Scott Frost’s career. Frost lasted three games and Whipple’s pass-centric system went lame duck. Three coordinators with distinct different offensive visions coaching and recruiting. If Nebraska suffered from bad luck in one-score games, the lack of offensive continuity wasn’t a lucky rabbit’s foot.

That leaves this Nebraska coaching staff looking at what it has. Anthony Grant emerged as Nebraska’s No. 1 running back this last season, finishing with 915 yards. Ajay Allen appeared poised to become a complimentary No. 2 before a collarbone injury prematurely ended his season. That left Gabe Ervin Jr., Jaquez Yant and Rahmir Johnson to fight for those valued reps. Yant transferred out of the program this offseason but Barthel said on Thursday he’s interested in Emmett Johnson, who redshirted last season. Barthel is encouraged by all of that and his opportunity to coach the next landmark running back at Nebraska.

Barthel said on Thursday that Nebraska’s the “original RBU,” meaning running back university. Mike Rozier, Roger Craig, Ahman Green, Ameer Abdullah, he mentioned as just a few of the all-time greats that left a stamp on Lincoln.

“As a running backs coach, taking this job, this is one of the best jobs in the country,” Barthel said. “With the tradition that’s built here on running the football, I’m honestly honored to be the guy that’s a part of that room and help leads those guys because I know how important it is to that fan base to run the ball effectively.”

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