Nebraska Football's running back Markese Stepp Scores Against Wisconsin
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Nebraska’s Running Back Carousel Continues to Turn

July 13, 2022

The Huskers experienced some late attrition on Tuesday when running back Markese Stepp entered the transfer portal. 

The move wasn’t a total surprise (to the contrary, I think many expected it at some point). It’s just the latest development in the crazy carousel ride that has been the running back position at Nebraska since Devine Ozigbo’s breakout senior season in 2018.

Frost and his staff signed Dedrick Mills out of junior college to replace Ozigbo in 2019, but they never quite felt comfortable (or had enough consistent success) to stick with him as a featured back and although he led the team in rushing, he only posted four games over 4.0 yards per carry and failed to crack double-digit carries in four of his 12 games.

The Maurice Washington experiment also ended midseason, which in turn led to the Wan’Dale Robinson in the backfield experiment.

Mills’ production tailed off a bit in his second season (in part due to an injury that cost him two games and perhaps limited him in others) and the young running back contingent featuring Marvin Scott III, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins combined for fewer carries than Robinson as the Huskers once again relied on him in the backfield far too much.

Heading into 2021, Mills moved on and Robinson transferred out of the program, in part because he didn’t want to keep playing running back. 

The Huskers landed Stepp out of the portal to provide some veteran experience to an otherwise young group, but he never managed to win the job and run with it. In fact, his season numbers (45 carries, 3.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns in seven games) lined up with what he did in his final season at USC (45 carries, 3.7 yards per carry, three scores in five games).

After garnering plenty of talk in fall camp, true freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. took the first handoff of the 2021 season. He ran the ball 37 times for 124 yards (just 3.4 yards per carry) before suffering a season-ending knee injury. In his third year in the program, Johnson emerged as the team’s leading back post-Ervin’s injury, finishing with 112 carries for 495 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.

Former walk-on Jaquez Yant finished second among backs in carries with 47 and was first in yards per attempt with 6.3, but the bulk of his 294 yards came in one game (127 yards on 13 carries against Northwestern). Scott and Sevion Morrison combined for 47 carries, but both were under 4.0 yards per tote, and they both left the program after the season.

As a result of a variety of factors, Nebraska has struggled mightily to find an effective running back that it could stick with and rely on game in and game out since Ozigbo headed off to the NFL, and even in that season he didn’t start out as the featured back in game one. Offensive line and play calling certainly played a part, but in looking back at the last three years it’s pretty apparent why Scott Frost felt the need to make a change at running backs coach.

This is the situation Bryan Applewhite walked into.

Stepp’s departure cleared things up at least a little bit in an otherwise crowded running back room. Even without him, Nebraska has six scholarship backs and another six walk-ons to provide depth. However, I don’t know many that were factoring him into the the two- or three-deep even if he had stayed.

Will Anthony Grant prove to be what the Huskers hoped they were getting in Mills a few years back? Was that Northwestern game a sign of things to come for a now slimmed down Yant, or was that an outlier? Does Johnson have another gear, or will he continue to be a solid yet unspectacular option? What does Ervin look like coming off the injury? Could one of the true freshmen, Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson, make an immediate impact?

I suppose I’ll go with Grant as my pick for the opening day starter (that run in the spring game was pretty spectacular, even if he should have been whistled down at the line of scrimmage), but any order of the top four or five wouldn’t surprise me.

Nebraska doesn’t necessarily need a single 1,000-yard back, but it does need a collection of backs it can rely on for consistent production, especially without Adrian Martinez behind center. The Huskers can’t rely on their quarterback to carry the rushing attack any further. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job is going to need some kind of effective handoff ground game if Frost wants Mark Whipple’s prolific Pittsburgh passing offense to travel to Lincoln.

I like the potential in that room and I do think at least one of those guys can emerge as a quality back so long as the Huskers can block well enough, but I’ve liked a lot of the pieces that the Huskers have cycled through over the last three years as well and it just hasn’t clicked.

Nebraska needed a reset at basically every offensive position save for tight end, and they got it with an almost entirely new offensive coaching staff with transfers or intriguing freshman sprinkled in throughout the roster.

Hopefully the carousel finally comes to a stop in the running back room this season under Applewhite. That would go a long way toward helping this program get back on the right track.

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