Nebraska football head coach Matt Rhule wants the Huskers to have a strong running game, and he’s been impressed by the backfield personnel early on.
At Monday’s press conference, he listed off the names of multiple running backs when asked about the position. The Huskers have significant experience at the spot, going beyond 2022 leading rusher Anthony Grant. Gabe Ervin Jr., Rahmir Johnson and Ajay Allen have all shown flashes during their time with the team, with different factors holding them back from consistency.
Rhule praised that trio of last season’s backups, but pointed out Ervin Jr. in particular. Now a third-year sophomore, he’s played in 12 games at Nebraska, eight of them coming last season. The head coach has been impressed with his work this offseason.
“Gabe Ervin’s probably been one of the stars of the offseason,” Rhule said. “He’s one of the fastest guys on the team, 221 pounds, 222 pounds. To me, he can hopefully be that battering ram that puts games away.”
Rhule said his staff will put an emphasis on “fourth-quarter shutouts,” wanting his team to finish strong when they have the lead late in games. A successful ground game can help accomplish that, and he thinks Ervin Jr. has a chance to lead that charge.
The running back made his most impact as a true freshman, amassing 124 yards and two touchdowns in the first four games of the season. However, in the last game of that stretch, he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Oklahoma.
Ervin Jr. said Monday that the injury continued to impact him throughout the 2022 season, where he only had two games with more than two carries. He ran for 60 yards on seven touches late in a blowout loss to Oklahoma, then had six carries against Indiana for 21 yards before missing the next four games due to injury. His 94 yards on the season ranked third on the team, just ahead of Johnson but well behind Allen and Grant.
He feels he’s at full health this offseason and continuing to get stronger.
“This is probably the best I’ve felt,” Ervin Jr. said. “I just feel bigger, more explosive, you know, that big back that’s going to do some damage this year.”
His start to the offseason might be a good sign for his chances of earning a bigger role. Grant, perhaps the clear lead contender to remain as the starter in 2023, is suspended for the time being, a “day-to-day” situation in part due to academics, according to Rhule. Otherwise, Allen is coming off a season-ending injury and Johnson earned similar playing time as Ervin Jr. last year. Emmett Johnson also drew praise from the head coach, as the redshirt freshman only appeared on special teams in his first season but was a three-star recruit.
“This running back room is going to be good,” Ervin Jr. said. “There’s a lot of different abilities that we can all do differently to put us out on that field. Right now, we’re just coming together, trying to dial in together into the details.”
Ervin Jr. said he’ll bring a mix of power, speed and explosiveness, but also wants to be a player who can catch the ball out of the backfield. That’s an ability he’s yet to display with the Huskers, having a career total of three receptions for 14 yards. Rahmir Johnson was the main pass-catcher of the room in 2021, and Grant was the only running back to record more than one reception in 2022, but only averaged 5.8 yards per catch.
An efficient backfield pass-catcher could add another dimension to Nebraska’s offense in 2023, and Ervin Jr. believes he could do that, along with anything else he’s asked.
“I’ll do anything,” Ervin Jr. said. “They want me to go downhill, I’ll go downhill. They want me to the line up in the Y, run a go route, I’ll do that. Anything they want me to do, I’ll do it.”