“Get this position back to where it needs to be for Nebraska football.” That was part of Ryan Held’s sign off during a Tuesday night appearance on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show. The running back coach talks often about Nebraska being a RBU of sorts. Back when Held was a player for the Huskers, Nebraska running backs were among the best in the country.
But since Held has returned to Lincoln, the position has been in a state of flux. His first year, Nebraska lost Tre Bryant—an incredibly promising runner whose knees just wouldn’t cooperate—before the season even began and then JUCO transfer runner Greg Bell shortly after the season started. Devine Ozigbo carried the load down the stretch in 2018, but he was a senior Held couldn’t mold a room around. Everyone remembers the situation Held had in the spring of 2019: just three scholarship backs, one of them handling legal issues away from the field.
Coaching changes aren’t kind to depth in the individual position rooms. Some rooms take longer than others to build up. Held’s room, from the sound of things, is in a good spot now as we await word on the viability of season No. 3.
“I feel really good right now going into 2020, probably the best I’ve felt since we’ve been here,” he told Sports Nightly host Greg Sharpe.
At the top of his room is another senior with perhaps the same kind of potential Ozigbo had. When the latter finally heard his number called with regularity in 2018, he ran somewhat rampant. Ozigbo got at least 10 carries in eight of his last nine games, and he in those eight he ripped off 963 yards at 8 yards a pop. The stretch helped break a three-year drought without a 1,000-yard back.
Dedrick Mills (5-11, 220 pounds) did something similar during his first year with Nebraska in 2019. NU gave him double-digit carries only eight times, but as the season wore on Mills gained comfort in NU’s zone system. With 347 yards in his last three games, and at 6.5 yards a carry, Held felt like the running back created a nice little springboard into the offseason for himself.
“It took him a little time to get used to it, but I think when you saw the last third of the year—how much better he got—he made a lot of progress being able to see the cuts that he didn’t make in the beginning of the year,” Held said.
“He’s gotten a lot better. He’s worked hard, had a great winter, and then had a great start to the spring before we got put on hold for a little bit. I’ve seen him around here and he looks good. He’s a leader for the guys. He’s the only senior, he’s the only old guy, scholarship-wise, that I have in my group. He’s done a really good job helping the younger guys up to this point. I’m excited about his senior prospectus.”
Mills is one of five scholarship runners Held has to work with in 2020. The other four are either redshirt freshmen (Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins) or true freshmen (Marvin Scott III, Sevion Morrison). Still, that’s depth Held hasn’t previously had.
Because there’s also a walk-on crop he’s high on. Most notably is a guy who gained serious attention last spring: walk-on Brody Belt.
“He’s a walk-on kid that’s really a good football player,” Held said. “He’s under-appreciated right now.
The next Wyatt Mazour, Held called him, which could be quite the compliment. This coaching staff loved Mazour, a senior last season who was put on scholarship by head coach Scott Frost. Mazour was a lunch pail kind of guy, and he carved out a role for himself in two years under a coach who inherited him. Held says Belt (5-8, 185 pounds) is right there in the thick of the competition for the “Fastest on the Team” mantle, and he can flex between wideout and running back. “He’s really, really smart,” Held said.
That gives the coach options.
One intended by-product? Don’t expect the same usage of Wan’Dale Robinson. The coaching staff said as much during a pre-spring ball roundtable they had in early March, and Held reiterated that fact Tuesday night. The wideout got 88 carries as a true freshman a year ago, and that role cost Robinson the last three games of the year.
“His main focus will be slot receiver,” Held said. Wideouts can and likely will on occasion motion into the backfield to, as Held says, mess with the defense, but when it comes to Robinson, “We won’t use him like we did last year.”
In all fairness, they don’t need to.
There are enough mouths to feed already.
Rahmir Johnson (5-10, 180 pounds) is the only other scholarship back on the roster with a collegiate carry to his name—21 in all last season, for 64 yards and a score. Held said he played most of the year with a nagging groin injury. This offseason, the former Bergen Catholic guy has added 10 pounds.
“He’s obviously a very smooth runner,” Held said. “He’s worked on some of the things in the offseason—running routes, catching the ball—that will be very important to all the guys, but specifically him. (Worked on) being more physical, which I think the added weight will help him. … I really like where he’s at.”
Held called Ronald Thompkins, Johnson’s classmate from the 2019 recruiting cycle, their X-factor in the running back room.
“Before he got injured out of high school, I think he could have gone anywhere in America,” Held said.
An ACL injury ended his high school career, and he spent the entirety of his first year in Lincoln recovering. Some have suggested anything from Thompkins (5-11, 195 pounds) this season is the cherry on top of the sundae Held has concocted, but maybe that’s selling the Georgia native short.
“He’s made a lot of progress,” Held said. “We’ve got to be smart with him, he’s not a guy you’re going to go out there and give 70 reps to, but he’s a guy I think, if he can continue on his progress, will have a chance to really help us this fall because he’s very talented.”
Competition will be intense, though. If Nebraska does have to take it easy with Thompkins, it might be better-equipped this year to do so because of the two-man 2020 class.
Held’s as pragmatic as they come. If a guy’s not there, he’ll tell you. Mills began his college career as a triple-option fullback, then played as a downhill runner at the JUCO level. Nebraska’s offense called for more, and Held was upfront about the transitional phase.
He keeps it real.
“I don’t know how many running backs I evaluated across the country,” he said of the 2020 recruiting cycle, “those were my top two guys.”
The two being Scott and Morrison.
“You start with Marvin, he’s a kid who’s very physical for his age in terms of his maturity,” Held said. “He’s a kid we’re really, really excited about early just because he comes in and he was a power lifter in high school. He looks like an older kid right now. He doesn’t look like a freshman.”
Strength coach Zach Duval helped confirm as much on Monday.
“And then Sevion. They’re two different backs. Sevion’s a taller kid, kind of a longer, taller kid that has track speed at the tailback position, but has a lot of opportunity to put on really good weight,” Held said. “I think Sevion’s a guy when it’s all said and done, can be a 225-pound, big-time running back. He’s got that game-changing speed you’re looking for. He’s gotten up here and really worked hard as well.”
Scott comes as ready-made for Big Ten ball as you’ll get. He’s a 5-9 guy who’s already 200 pounds. A fast-twitch runner, Held says, with a powerful core and a low center of gravity. Morrison is the zig to Scott’s zag; a 6-foot guy who back on signing day Frost called as complete a back as NU has.
“I think they’ll be good players for us, but again, they’re freshmen, so we’ve got to be patient. I’m not going to put the cart before the horse and crown them anything yet until we get out there. They’ve got to be able to execute and take care of their bodies and compete at a collegiate level because it’s a different deal.
“But I wouldn’t trade those two for any kids in the country last year. We’re glad we got them.”
Held says the guys in his room need to have a chip on their shoulder if there’s football to be played this fall. Promise only really matters in the summertime, it’s about execution once the calendar flips to September.
Held seems excited about what that could look like.