Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Nebraska’s Running Back Rotation Coming into Focus

September 07, 2022

Scott Frost didn’t want to crown Anthony Grant after his 23-carry, 189-yard, two-touchdown performance against North Dakota, but two weeks into the season the JUCO transfer has established himself as the clear No. 1 in Nebraska’s backfield.

In fact, despite his post-game hesitancy to shower him with praise, Frost removed the -OR- after Grant’s name on the post-North Dakota depth chart. Heading into the game against the Fighting Hawks, Nebraska’s top five backs were all listed as co-starters on the depth chart despite Grant carrying the ball 19 times for 101 yards and two scores in the season-opener. Now he’s all alone atop the chart.

However, the other four — true freshman Ajay Allen, redshirt freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. and sophomores Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant — still carry the -OR- next to their names. Despite what the depth chart says, though, it has also become clear who the coaches view as the No. 2.

At the apparent urging of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, Allen, a 4-star recruit, made his debut against Northwestern in week zero, running the ball three times for 7 yards. Yant also ran the ball three times, picking up just 5 yards.

Move ahead to week two and Yant logged just one snap. After not playing in the first game, Ervin and Johnson combined for 10 snaps, recording just one carry and one target between them. Allen, on the other hand, ran the ball 11 times for 58 yards and his first touchdown.

“I thought both of those two ran great,” Frost said of Grant and Allen after the game. “Gabe Ervin is a fine football player and he deserves to play too. Rahmir Johnson was one of our workhorses last year, and he’s still getting caught a little bit in between. We have to make sure there’s packages for him because I love that kid and what he’s poured into this program, and he’s a really good football player … But I’m really proud of Anthony and Ajay today. Both of those guys are going to be good players around here. We have to make sure we’re using all of them.”

Grant and Allen are both newcomers, as are Whipple, running backs coach Bryan Applewhite and wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph. Those three don’t have any allegiances to returning players, unlike Frost. And while the head coach ultimately has final say, it’s those position coaches that are working directly with the players every day and the offensive coordinator who calls the plays on game days.

Johnson led the running backs with 495 yards and four touchdowns last season, though he averaged a pedestrian 4.42 yards per carry. He earned rave reviews from the coaches this summer for his willingness to contribute in a variety of ways including coverage units on special teams. As fall camp rolled on, he seemed to begin spending more and more time with the wide receivers, and he called himself a “wide-back,” a hybrid slot/halfback position that was perhaps once called the Duck-R position when Frost first brought his offense to Lincoln.

However, this isn’t Frost’s offense anymore following the arrival of Whipple, and after all the talk, Johnson didn’t play on offense as either a running back or a receiver in the opener. Frost said after that game that Johnson got caught in between playing wide receiver and running back, which makes sense as neither of those position coaches have the same relationship with Johnson as Frost does.

“We needed some help we thought with depth outside and with our depth at running back,” Frost said. “I want Rahmir to be able to play both, and he took a bunch of reps outside and he has gotten really good at that, but it has been a bit of a learning curve. I think he has just got caught between playing outside and playing in the backfield, but he is good enough. We need to find some roles for him and make sure he has some touches.”

At receiver, he’s behind the team’s most-targeted receiver in Trey Palmer and walk-on Brody Belt, who has logged 19 total snaps in the first two games and has a couple years’ head start on Johnson in the running back-to-receiver transition. In the backfield, he appears to be firmly behind Grant and Allen, and he has plenty of competition for that third spot, including Ervin.

The redshirt freshman from Georgia beat out the other backs for the starting job out of camp last year, but a knee injury cut short his season after just four games. He averaged just 3.35 yards per carry on 27 attempts prior to the injury. Ervin missed spring ball but rehabbed hard enough to make it back on the field for fall camp.

Frost has said multiple times now that he thinks those two are good enough to play and deserve to be rewarded for the work they’ve put in and for what they’ve sacrificed for the program. However, Frost’s first responsibility is to the program as a whole and his primary task is to win games.

The newcomers at the skill positions appear to be the real deal; Grant, Allen, Palmer, Marcus Washington and Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda have all shown what they can do and all need their touches, and you can add returners like Travis Vokolek, Omar Manning and Alante Brown into that mix as well. There’s only so much playing time to go around, and I think it’s becoming clear who deserves the lion’s share of those snaps.

Might there be room for Ervin or Johnson to still contribute to the program, either in the short or long term? Certainly. But until one of them receives a significant opportunity and makes the most of it, it’s probably time to stop asking about them and reset our expectations to zero

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