Nebraska Football Dedrick Mills Runs with the Ball Against Colorado
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the Huskers: Running Backs

February 01, 2020

This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now. Each day will bring about a different position group, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scorings: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive Backs | Offensive Line | Wideouts and Tight Ends

With the defense covered last week, the attention this week is on the offensive side of the ball. Up next. . .

Running Backs

Returning: Rahmir Johnson (rFR), Ronald Thompkins (rFR), Dedrick Mills (SR)

Incoming: Sevion Morrison‍ (FR), Marvin Scott III‍ (FR)

Returning Production: 77.9% of running back carries (257/330), 75.7% of running back yardage (1,181/1,561) at 4.6 yards per carry, 87.5% of running back scores (14/16), and seven of 12 starts

  GP Att. Yards YPC TDs Expl. Runs (Rate)
Dedrick Mills 12 143 745 5.2 10 26 (18.2%)
Wan’Dale Robinson 10 88 340 3.9 3 8 (9.1%)
Maurice Washington 7 50 298 6.0 1 7 (14.0%)
Wyatt Mazour 10 21 74 3.5 1 2 (9.5%)
Rahmir Johnson 4 21 64 3.1 1 1 (4.8%)
Brody Belt 12 5 32 6.4 1 (20.0%)
Jaylin Bradley 1 2 8 4.0

Nebraska ran the ball nearly 63% of the time in 2019, compared to a 53-47 run-pass split in 2018. But, in 2019 the Nebraska quarterbacks accounted for 36.8% of all runs and 36.8% of all rushing yardage, both of which represent year-over-year rises. Quarterback Adrian Martinez led the team in rushing attempts (144).

The offense ran it more, just to poorer results. In head coach Scott Frost’s first season in Lincoln, Nebraska was top-30 in yards per game and yards per play on the ground. This past season, the Huskers held at 30th in yards per game but dropped from 16th to 60th in yards per play.

The offensive line wasn’t consistently good (as has already been covered), and that played a role. Injuries played another. Nebraska tried to make Wan’Dale Robinson a between-the-tackles kind of runner when Maurice Washington was removed from the equation after seven games, but that led to a 3.9 yards-per-carry average and a slew of bumps and bruises.

The room this upcoming season will consist of one scholarship senior and four scholarship freshmen. Two of those freshmen won’t arrive until the summer (Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III) and one is rehabbing from knee surgery, making his status for spring ball at least a little up in the air (Ronald Thompkins).

And yet, this room, under the guidance of running backs coach Ryan Held, new run game coordinator Greg Austin, and new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick, feels like it is in a good spot.

The running backs got a 7.1 average score in the fan poll for this piece. While several have questions about the depth of the room—it is, with four freshmen, unproven—most are confident in the guy expected to start.

Dedrick Mills took time to work himself into shape a season ago. Not necessarily game shape, but Nebraska shape. As a freshman at the D1 level, Mills was a fullback in a triple-option system at Georgia Tech. At the junior college level, he was a downfield runner. At Nebraska, he was being asked to read zones and react accordingly. That takes time. It took Mills time.

It didn’t help the Huskers had trouble blocking up the middle early on, but when they started to round into form and Mills started to figure it out, things coalesced. The Wisconsin game was a perfect result and perhaps a window into what he could do in a full-time role this upcoming season.

Mills ran for 188 on 17 carries against a defense that ended the season sixth in yards allowed per game and 15th in yards allowed per carry. He gained at least 10 yards on nine different carries against a group that, on average, allowed just under four of those a game.

“If you look at him today compared to three weeks ago, four weeks ago, he’s able to make the cuts now that maybe he wouldn’t have three or four weeks ago,” Held said after that Badger performance. “You think about it with him, at Georgia Tech he was the fullback guy hitting it up and trap plays and belly plays and all that. In junior college, it was more downhill ISO plays. Well, this is a whole different offense, so it just takes some time just like Devine Ozigbo [in 2018]. It took him some time and then he got a really good feel of it and how much better did he get throughout the year?

“It’s just a matter of every day, compound interest of practice, over and over getting these reps and seeing it up front, what’s happening, how the blocking is. It really helps those guys get better and he’s been determined to go out and get better each week.”

Which was the biggest thing working in Mills’ favor in 2019; his work ethic was such the Husker trainers had to bring extra towels for him in practice. He’s a sweater.

But his 143 carries last season ranked ninth amongst Big Ten running backs and didn’t even crack the top 100 nationally. It seemed at times Nebraska was running Robinson instead of Mills.

Is this his job, his ball, his offense in 2020? The biggest question with the running back position is just how exactly is Mills going to be used?

Nebraska clearly has a weapon in the senior running back. He gained at least 10 yards just about once every five carries. How many broken tackles did he have in 2019? How many yards after contact? Quite a bit, I’d venture to say.

The Frost-coordinated Oregon teams were interesting in the context of this discussion. When Royce Freeman joined the Ducks in 2014, the offense was almost instantly tailored to fit him. He averaged 17 carries a game as a freshman, on 5.4 yards per carry, and then 22 and 6.5 as a sophomore. His 1,836 yards in 2015 were good for second in the Pac-12, only behind Christian McCaffrey’s 2,000-yard season at Stanford. Freeman had 17 touchdowns.

Could Mills be that same kind of physical running back? It certainly seems like he could handle the workload just looking at his frame.

It might be worth exploring. Because doing so has a trickle-down effect on a number of things.

The quarterback run element would theoretically get more potent because it’s not as large a role of the offense (which would also save some hits on Martinez). Maybe not too dissimilar from Luke McCaffrey’s usage?

Also, those Duck-R carries become more strategic versus what they were in 2019—a last resort— and you’re able to save the wear and tear on Robinson.

Thirteen different players ran the ball in 2019. While this offense likes to share the wealth, finding that one guy to lean on helps everything else. The others can be complimentary instead of supplementary.

Maurice Washington is gone. Rahmir Johnson or, depending on how much he’s able to do this spring and summer, Ronald Thompkins could wind up with that No. 2 job as a result. Then, Held could use one of Sevion Morrison, Marvin Scott III, and walk-on Brody Belt to round out a three-man rotation.

How much confidence can the Huskers have in the young guys? How much should those guys realistically be asked to carry?

Everything points back to Mills. And this doesn’t feel like one of those situations where you’re hoping the growth happens in the offseason and you’re just projecting what he could be; it feels much closer to fact than projection that Mills could be an upper-echelon back in the conference if he’s getting between 15 and 20 carries a game.

Scott, by all indications, should be physically able to play right away. Morrison may very well turn into a great all-around running back in a few years. Same for Johnson. But if there’s success to be had on the ground in 2020, it’ll be had by Mills.

Pretty good guy to try and go get it done with.

Score: 7/10

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