With the 2021 campaign in the books and an offseason full of recruiting and transfer portal-ing underway, it’s as good a time as any to look at where each of Nebraska’s position groups sit heading into spring ball.
We’ll be breaking down this series into nine position groups—receivers, tight ends, running backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, specialists and, of course, quarterbacks—and giving them a 1-10 score, with 1 meaning the group isn’t looking too good and 10 meaning it’s in great shape and you, the Husker fan, should be excited.
Next are the running backs. Let’s take a look at who the running back room is losing, returning and adding from the 2022 recruiting class and transfer portal, if any.
Losing: Sevion Morrison (transferred to Kansas), Marvin Scott III (transferred to Florida Atlantic)
Returning (years in the program): Rahmir Johnson (4th year), Jaquez Yant (3rd year), Markese Stepp (2nd year), Gabe Ervin Jr. (2nd year)
Incoming: Emmett Johnson (1st year)
Notable walk-ons returning: Brody Belt (5th year)
For whatever reason—the offensive line not blocking well, the running backs not hitting where the design of the play is supposed to hit, or a combination of both, which is likely the case—the hand-off run game never took off for the Huskers in 2021. Against ranked teams, Nebraska averaged just 3.35 yards per rush, which was 9th in the conference and tied for 63rd in the country. That number includes runs from the quarterbacks, too. Either way, it wasn’t good in 2021 outside of the Northwestern game.
Just as it appeared a running back was getting in a groove and finding a rhythm last season, injuries hit the position. The result was a running back rotation that seemed to make little sense the rest of the year.
First, it was Ervin. The true freshman from Georgia found his way into the starting lineup to start the season thanks in part to his all-around game, which includes being an effective blocker on third down. He had his best rushing performance of his career against Buffalo with 56 yards and two touchdowns, but he went down with a season-ending knee injury the following week at Oklahoma.
From there, Rahmir Johnson emerged as the top back. He provides a receiving option out of the backfield and, despite his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame, ran hard while racking up 495 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Behind a shaky o-line, Johnson surpassed 70 rushing yards in three games and had maybe his best outing against Michigan, where he had 67 rushing yards to go with six catches for 105 yards and one touchdown. Johnson got banged up and was in concussion protocol after the Minnesota game, however. He returned for Purdue and Ohio State, but saw his season end with an injury after the game with the Buckeyes.
Like so many others at the offensive skill positions, Yant’s playing time was inconsistent. The Florida native finished with 294 rushing yards and one touchdown, and his season was highlighted by his 127-yard performance against Northwestern. Stepp’s playing time saw even a bigger dip. After a 101-yard outing against Fordham, the USC transfer rushed for a combined 66 yards on only 24 carries in four games.
The Huskers landed one running back in the 2022 class in Emmett Johnson, who was Mr. Football in Minnesota. Take one look at his highlights and you’ll know why Nebraska was interested. Johnson runs hard and there’s not a lot of extra movement when he cuts—he plants a foot and goes. It might be unfair to expect anything from him next season, as it’s common for young players to need a year to get acclimated to the college game. But it’s not totally out of the question that he could see the field—just look at what Ervin did last year.
Nebraska’s running back situation leaves a lot to be desired and is full of questions. Let’s run through some of them:
— Rahmir Johnson is serviceable, but is a small back in a conference full of big defenses. Is he capable of staying healthy for an entire season?
— Yant is intriguing. His performance against Northwestern was fun to watch as the 245-pounder barreled over Wildcats. But he was also disciplined by the coaching staff as he adjusted and matured to the college game—will those issues be fixed in 2022?
— Was Stepp completely healthy in 2021? He came in with a foot injury he sustained while at USC. If he wasn’t healthy, that would explain why he disappeared for large stretches of the season. If he was healthy, why didn’t get get more reps?
— How will Ervin recover from his injury? Medical technology keeps getting better, and if Nebraska can get a fully healthy and confident Ervin back for 2022, that would be a big boost to the running back room.
— Will Nebraska have a full-time running backs coach? If so, who will it be? Longtime Husker assistant Ron Brown finished the season coaching that group following the firing of Ryan Held, so he could slide into the role. But during an interview on ‘Sports Nightly’ Frost said he likes having Brown as an analyst giving advice and guidance behind the scenes. That would open the door for an outside-the-program hire.
At this current moment in January, no one jumps out as being “the guy” at running back. That isn’t a good recipe when the program is needing to rebuild and quickly develop an o-line, which will have a new center and be guided by a first-year Power Five o-line coach in Donovan Raiola, who wants to teach a different style of blocking.
Keep in mind that the transfer portal could be used as a quick fix in this area, if it’s the right fit. Considering the production coming back, and the questions surrounding the position, Nebraska’s running backs room gets a score of 4/10.