As the Nebraska football program begins its transition from spring ball to summer workouts, there are a handful of positions on the team that still remain unsettled. One of them is at running back, where multiple players are vying for a spot in position coach Bryan Applewhite’s rotation.
It’s a good time to revisit the series we did in January that put a score, 1 through 10, on each position. If that group got a 1, it wasn’t looking good. If it was a 10, that means it’s in great shape and you should be excited for the fall.
Already re-scored: Receivers | Offensive Line
Next up is the running back room, where three candidates have emerged to be the lead back, or at least in a rotation: Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant and the lone transfer from the offseason, Anthony Grant. Here’s the original post from January that detailed the running backs room, which was given a 4.
Rahmir Johnson, the veteran and leader
While he doesn’t look like your typical Big Ten back, the undersized Johnson still runs like one even though he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. Johnson rushed for the most yards of any back last year with 495, and while he may not be an every-down back, he does a couple things really well that will help him stay in the rotation.
Johnson is probably the fastest back in the room and has the best hands. As a receiver, he had 16 catches for 197 yards and was a problem for the Michigan defense last October when he caught six passes for 106 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown.
Along with his toughness, speed and receiving ability, Johnson has also developed into the leader of the room, which says something considering he started fall camp last year near the bottom of the depth chart. After a change in attitude and a little sticktoitiveness, he’ll begin this year’s fall camp near the top of it.
A new and improved Jaquez Yant?
After a season where he needed to make changes off the field to stay on it, Yant, who rushed for 294 yards and one touchdown on 47 carries, appears he’s made an effort to do so. While there are benefits of being a smooth-moving 245-plus-pound running back, there might be more negatives. One of them—and maybe the biggest—is needing a breather after only a couple plays.
Yant, who also said he’s focusing on his blocking this offseason, wants to be a back Nebraska’s offense can depended on. He has the talent to do so, but his conditioning needed to get better. So this offseason he made a change in his diet. He started eating healthier with less late-night snacks. When his teammates went home for spring break, Yant stayed in Lincoln and did conditioning drills. The Florida native has his weight down to 232 pounds.
Conditioning, stamina and blocking drills are all part of Yant’s growth. He’s still learning how to be a college football running back, and that includes when and when not to put his shoulders down and run over a defender.
“Not every running back is the same. Yant is a big back and God has given him size, God’s given him good feet and an ability to run and he’s got to use those abilities to his advantage,” Applewhite said. “There’s a time and place when you can try to maybe outrun somebody and there’s a time and place where you need to use what God gave you, which is size and strength, and go get a tough yard.”
The new guy, Anthony Grant
Grant enters the running back room as the only transfer. He spent the past two seasons at the junior-college level with New Mexico Military Institute, where he rushed for a combined 2,549 yards and 28 touchdowns while turning himself into the No.1 JUCO back in the 2022 class. Before his time in Roswell, New Mexico, Grant spent two seasons at Florida State, primarily serving as a kick returner in 2018 before redshirting in 2019.
At 5-11 and 210 pounds, Grant is a solidly-built back who has some shake—check out his 60-yard touchdown run in the spring game, though it was during the two-hand touch portion of the scrimmage and reserve outside linebacker Simon Otte may have had a tackle for loss if the play was live—as well as burst and physicality. Applewhite saw all those things on tape when he was recruiting him to TCU before getting the Nebraska job.
“Anthony’s an explosive kid, he’s got tremendous vision, his start-to-stop for a kid his size is unbelievable for what he can do with the ball in his hands,” Applewhite said in January. “He’s got incredible instincts, he’s tough, he’s got great hands out of the backfield. I was just tickled to death and excited to get the opportunity to work with him.”
The others guys who could make a push
While Johnson, Yant and Grant should be considered the main guys right now, it’d be smart to not count out a couple others who didn’t compete during spring ball—Gabe Ervin Jr. and Ajay Allen.
Last season, Ervin was the first true freshman in the modern era to start at running back at Nebraska. At 6 feet and 215 pounds, the Georgia native has a great blend of size and speed. Look at his rushing stats through four games from last year before his season-ending knee injury at Oklahoma—37 carries for 124 yards, just 3.4 yards per carry—and no one will be wowed.
But it’s important to remember that Ervin was a true freshman playing his first season of college football. It’s unfair to expect him to pick things up immediately—it’s rare when that happens. Ervin was looking more comfortable with each carry he got until his injury happened. While he missed spring rehabbing that knee injury, he’s expected back for fall camp.
It will likely take time for Ervin to get re-acclimated to the game, but once he does, he could be someone who pushes the others for playing time.
The same can be said for Allen, a three-star recruit in the 2022 class according to the 247Sports Composite. Allen was committed to TCU and Applewhite while he was coaching with the Horned Frogs, but flipped to Nebraska on signing day last February.
Allen is a talented back from Louisiana who Applewhite obviously likes. He’d fit in well with other speedy backs in the Big 12, but now he’ll bring that speed and elusiveness to the Big Ten. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him get a couple touches here and there during the season.
Before the spring, there were some doubts about this room. But as each practice was knocked out and more was said about how different players are progressing, Nebraska sounds like it’s sitting well at running back.
Sure, talk is exactly that—just talk. The backs will have to show improvement on the field in games, and behind a reworked offensive line learning a new style of blocking from a first-year Power Five o-line coach in Donovan Raiola.
But with Johnson emerging as a leader, Yant making an effort to mature off the field and Grant showing a glimpse of what he could do at the spring game—yes, even during the two-hand touch half—Applewhite has tools to work with. Nebraska’s running back room gets bumped up to a score of 6.