Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Luke McCaffrey hands the ball off to running back Marvin Scott III
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Scoring the 2021 Huskers: Running Backs

January 19, 2021

For two years running now we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Wideouts | Tight Ends

Next up. . .

Running Backs

Returning: Rahmir Johnson (3Y FR), Ronald Thompkins (3Y FR), Marvin Scott III (2Y FR), Sevion Morrison (2Y FR)

Notable returning walk-ons: Cooper Jewett (3Y FR)

Incoming: Gabe Irvin (FR), Markese Stepp (4Y SO)

Returning production among running backs: 31% of carries (38/122), 23.0% of rushing yards (118/514), 25.0% of touchdowns (1/4), 11.0% of explosive runs (1/9)

AttemptsYardsYPCTDs10+yd runsReceptionsYards
Dedrick Mills843964.7381285
Marvin Scott III24622.600217
Rahmir Johnson8303.811633
Ronald Thompkins5244.800110
Cooper Jewett122.0001-1

When Dedrick Mills was leaned on, he produced. Nebraska had a senior running back that fit the Big Ten and gave the program a short-yardage guy who did well to learn the scheme, hit holes, and run hard. He helped the rushing attack to rank 13th nationally in power success rate (conversions on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go) and second in the Big Ten in explosive runs.

When Mills was unavailable (health was a serious problem last season), more often than not the role of lead tailback fell to Wan’Dale Robinson. He got 16 carries against Penn State when Mills exited early and, for the year, he ran it 46 times for 240 yards.

Statistically speaking, Nebraska’s ground game was potent in 2020. From a personnel standpoint, that makes sense.

But, there’s a caveat. The two quarterbacks—Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey—accounted for 54% of the carries and 57% of the rushing yardage. Of the 55 explosive runs the Huskers had in 2020, 37 of them came from the quarterbacks. Generally speaking, that position has run more in Scott Frost’s first three years in Lincoln than at either of his previous two schools.

It’s a method that so far has produced a 4-8 season, a 5-7 season, a 3-5 season, and declining overall offensive production with each passing year. In short: it hasn’t worked in ways that matter.

And now both Mills and Robinson have decided to move on.

So how does Nebraska feel about this running back room that was left behind? How much do we know about the options NU has to replace Mills? The addition of Markese Stepp, a transfer from USC, on the surface might seem to lend some insight into that thinking, but it’s not a given Stepp will even be available.

This offseason saw a massive influx of names in the transfer portal, and many probably thought the light at the end of the tunnel wouldn’t be as far off as has been the case in the past. The NCAA looked poised to adopt legislation granting a one-time free transfer exception. That legislation was tabled last week. If Stepp is to play in 2021, he’d need a waiver to do so.

Does Nebraska feel good about those chances?

Stepp is a lot like Mills. He’s a bruiser that runs north-south rather than laterally. He runs behind his pads and seeks out contact. In the Pac-12, offenses don’t exactly prioritize that. In the Big Ten, however, the 6-foot, 235-pound Stepp will fit right in.

In Nebraska’s room, he’ll be the most seasoned option, too.

To say he’s a proven option might be a tad premature, but Stepp did have 48 runs for 307 yards (6.4 a carry) and three scores the last time he was truly healthy. An ankle injury late in 2019 ended his redshirt freshman season and then lingered into 2020, deflating his numbers a bit for his final year in Pasadena. Still, most of the reporting on Stepp from L.A. paints a picture of a running back set to ascend to the top spot on the depth chart had he stayed a Trojan.

Comparatively, there’s no comparison.

The career numbers for the other four Husker runners are as follows:

Rahmir Johnson: 10 games, 29 rushing attempts, 94 yards, two scores

Marvin Scott III: five games, 24 rushing attempts, 62 yards

Ronald Thompkins: two games, five rushing attempts, 24 yards

Sevion Morrison: zero games played

The positive here is there’s no way yet of knowing what exactly Nebraska has in any of its four young running backs. Though Johnson and Thompkins will be in their third year on campus, they’re still green when it comes to runners.

And all four of the options were well thought of recruits.

“He was as talented as anyone in America coming out of high school,” running back coach Ryan Held said of Thompkins last October. The Georgia native tore his right ACL six games into his junior high school season, and then tore the ACL in his left knee in the season-opener of his senior year. A setback in 2019 put him back on the shelf and kept him off the field for the entirety of his first year in Lincoln. Had Thompkins been able to play either of his last two years of high school ball, Nebraska might have had a hard time fending off college football’s upper class.

There’s Johnson, a 3-star guy from Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey. As a senior in high school, he ran for 1,334 yards and 12 total touchdowns behind seven 100-yard performances. At 5-foot-10, 185-pounds, Johnson’s versatility as an improved pass-catcher provided some added interest, but Nebraska’s talked a lot about needing to see consistency from Johnson before giving him a bigger role.

Perhaps because of that fact, Scott seemed to eat into his carries this past season. Is he a favorite for the No. 1 or 2 spot in 2021? The dude is a physical freak at 5-foot-9, 210 pounds, and showed up to Nebraska looking like a grown man, but he struggled to pop much of anything when given the ball, a direct contrast of what he did before Nebraska.

Scott ran for 7,482 yards and scored 80 total touchdowns in his high school career, which happened to be five years instead of a normal four because he was playing varsity ball and running for nearly 1,800 yards as an eighth grader. Following a senior year that saw him go for 1,477 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, Scott’s career rushing total unofficially ranked sixth in Florida high school history.

The wildcard of the bunch is former 4-star prospect Sevion Morrison. A 6-foot, 210-pound runner who says his rushing role model is Adrian Peterson, Morrison ran for 1,798 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior on 183 carries. Coaches told me you see glimpses of Peterson when Morrison takes off down a sideline.

He didn’t see the field as a freshman at Nebraska due to injury and COVID, but he might be Nebraska’s most well-rounded back still. A capable pass-catcher and a violent runner, he’s got really good vision to see the cutback opportunity and speed to create separation after.

Gabe Ervin will join the room on the field this spring. Could he leapfrog a few guys on the depth chart as a true freshman? Absolutely.

Held has certainly had some interesting spring periods with his room, and whatever this upcoming one looks like, it doesn’t seem like that trend will be changing any time soon. A revolving door of personnel won’t be the issue it has been in the past, but the competition has the potential to be one of the best on the team.

Nebraska needs not one, but two and quite possibly even three of its running backs to be a consistent source of production in the new year. The rushing production can’t all fall to the QB, and the crutch that Robinson provided has snapped.

This entire Husker offense needs a major infusion of playmaking. How much can the running back room help with that? Who’s the next man up now that Mills is off to the NFL? Does Nebraska know what it has? Are any of the options ready to take that next step? Lots of talent, but lots of questions.

Score: 5/10

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