The biggest mystery on the Nebraska football team is the running back position.
Former walk-on Jaquez Yant turned some heads in the spring, to the point where he is a now a former walk-on. True freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. also took advantage of older guys missing time to impress the coaching staff during the spring as well.
We’re a week into fall camp now and the whole backfield is healthy, which means guys who weren’t able to prove themselves during spring ball are showing the coaches what they can do. At this point, offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said sorting out the depth chart at running back is “still a work in progress.”
“We’re rotating five guys,” Lubick said. “Markese Stepp, the transfer, he’s done some really good things. This is really his first time taking reps because he was hurt in the spring and he looks 100%, ready to roll. Sevion Morrison is repping with the ones and twos; he’s doing some really good things.
“Gabe Ervin has made big steps, which we expected because if you’re a freshman your biggest steps you make, since he was actually here in the spring, is from spring to fall. So he’s doing some really good things, and so are Marvin [Scott III] and Rahmir [Johnson]; Rahmir’s probably having his best spring since he’s been here. We’ve had good competition there.”
It’s not wise to put too much stock into what coaches say off the cuff in post-practice situations, but the fact that Stepp was the first name that popped into Lubick’s mind seems noteworthy. The transfer from USC had surgery almost as soon as he arrived in Lincoln and wasn’t able to participate in spring ball at all, but he seems to be making up for lost time. Coach Scott Frost mentioned a pitch count for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound back at Big Ten Media Days, but he appears to be ahead of schedule.
“Coming into this fall, we kind of thought limited reps, let’s see what he can do, don’t want to rush him back too soon, and see how he progresses,” Lubick said. “He’s been doing better than we thought as far as his health. That’s kind of practice by practice. I think he’s ready to roll. If we had to play tomorrow, he’d be ready to roll. We feel good about that and he’s kind of progressed a little bit faster than we thought he would from a health standpoint.”
Morrison also missed a lot of time during the spring after missing almost all of his first season because of injury or illness. Now that he’s finally healthy, the 6-foot, 210-pound back from Oklahoma has shown enough to get some reps with the top units.
“One of his biggest hang-ups, not always his fault, has been injury,” Lubick said. “He’s had different things, he’s had some bad luck with injuries and he got sick and missed a lot of practice. We never really got to see him. This spring is the first time we were able to see him compete and he embraced it. I’ll give him a lot of credit — he did a good job of getting his body healthy in the offseason, which a lot of those guys did.
“Running backs are going to get banged up, that’s the nature of the position, and even though we haven’t done a live scrimmage yet those guys are thudding and taking shots and they’re running hard and he’s done a great job and hasn’t missed a practice.”
The backfield is a lot more crowded than it was in the spring, but Ervin is still very much in the mix. The 6-foot, 215-pound freshman out of Georgia has continued to make strides.
“I think Gabe’s ready,” Frost said. “The one thing I’ll say about him is he came in as an adult. He was very mature in his approach to everything when he came in. That’s usually the tell-tale mark if they’re going to be ready to play early on. He’s done a good job learning it, he competes and he’ll definitely be in the mix at that spot.”
Lubick said the most important thing the coaches are looking for when assessing the battle for the starting running back job is consistency.
“That’s not just at running back, that’s every position,” Lubick said. “Who can we count on to do the right assignment? We ask our running backs to do a lot. We ask them to pass protect, we ask them to run down the middle, we ask them to catch balls. So who can do that the best on a consistent basis?”
On the pass protection front, Frost said all the backs have shown the ability to take care of business thus far in camp.
“I think the running backs in general have been doing a good job in pass pro,” Frost said. “That’s a tough assignment. The first thing is knowing who your guys are, making sure you’re disciplined with your eyes. But part of it too is just being willing to stick your nose in and get the job done. We’ve got some bigger backs now that are more capable of that and I’ve been pleased with all of their jobs with pass protection.”
That includes the freshman in Ervin. Lubick called his pass blocking “really good” and “a strength,” which often isn’t the case for first-year players.
“Pass blocking is a lot about technique, but at the end of the day it’s about toughness and that’s where I’ve been really impressed with Gabe,” Lubick said. “Gabe’s talented but he’s very physically tough. He runs the ball hard between the tackles, he’ll run through contact and then he’s not afraid to take on a linebacker coming off the edge. That’s a big quality that we look for in all of our players is physical and mental toughness.”
Lubick used some variation of the phrase “doing good things” with all five backs in the five-man rotation, which means he either is hiding behind coach speak or that battle is still completely up for grabs heading into week two of fall camp. One thing is clear, however — now that everyone is healthy Nebraska has no shortage of options to choose from.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.