Dedrick Mills is coming along. It hasn’t been the start to the year many likely predicted for the senior runner following his close to the 2019 campaign, but running back coach Ryan Held didn’t seem to be too worried about either Mills’ effectiveness or his availability during an appearance Thursday night on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show.
“He’s a guy that, when you watch him, he’s always going to play hard every time you watch him, he runs hard, he gets it,” Held said. “We’ve obviously faced some really, really good defenses and he’s really been able to get that thing downhill.
“There’s a lot of season left. We expect really good things from him going forward. He’s just gotten better, I think. His footwork has gotten better, his reads have got better from last year. There’s a lot more carries left for him and a lot more plays left in the season.”
So far this year, Mills has 31 carries for 95 yards. He’s got two scores, but he’s only averaging 3 yards a run. And after three carries last Saturday against Penn State, Mills was forced out of the game for an undisclosed injury.
In response, Nebraska went with Wan’Dale Robinson as its primary tailback instead of any of the four freshmen it has in Held’s room.
“We just felt like there was an opportunity for him,” Held said. “We want the ball in his hands.”
That’s been the commitment for a few weeks now. Robinson had a season-high for touches with 21 against the Nittany Lions, blowing past the six he had against Ohio State and the four against Northwestern.
It will be interesting to track Robinson’s usage against Illinois on Saturday if Mills is either unavailable or limited. The sophomore from Kentucky had 60 yards rushing on 16 carries, but only 11 yards receiving. It was a struggle for him to find green grass to run in.
Nebraska would probably like to find some success for him in the passing game, and it sounds like Held is super high on some of the youngsters he has in his room to be able to take those carries on the ground.
Starting with Marvin Scott III, a true freshman.
“Marvin is a guy that’s really come along here in the last two to three weeks,” Held said. “He’s learning the offense. He’s really gotten in shape. … He’s gonna be a really big asset for us the rest of the year and moving forward.”
Scott hasn’t necessarily done much that would pop on the stat sheet—eight carries for 25 yards on the year—but he’s methodically worked his way into the fold with consistency on the practice field and work in the film room. He got a call Saturday night from head coach Scott Frost specifically praising a key block on wideout Zavier Betts’ 45-yard touchdown early against Penn State.
Ronald Thompkins, a redshirt freshman, opened the season as the No. 2 back in Columbus, but after missing practice time the following week, it was Scott who made the trip to Evanston, Illinois, to serve as Mills’ backup against Northwestern.
Thompkins got one carry against Penn State, Scott got five. That competition remains tight.
“We’re still building him up,” Held said of Thompkins.
Rahmir Johnson, Thompkins classmate from the 2019 cycle, seems to have gotten lost in the crowd a little bit. He was a guy who received 21 carries for 64 yards a year ago while redshirting, but hasn’t yet run the ball this year. Held wants to see more consistency from him.
“I think that there’s opportunities for him this season,” Held said. “There’s competitive work in our room each day, I challenge our guys every day, and you’ve got to bring it in practice. I’m going to reward the guys getting it done in practice in the game when there’s opportunities. … He’s had a good week of practice, so we’ll see how the game goes on Saturday.”
Another in the “we’ll see” category is Scott’s classmate from the most recent cycle: Sevion Morrison.
The Oklahoma native didn’t travel for either of Nebraska’s first two games and didn’t appear against Penn State. Might we see his debut against Illinois? “I’m getting closer to being able to introduce him out there,” Held said.
Morrison is a smart back who has picked up the offense quickly, according to his coach. He’s not yet at 100% health—Held said he was “a little banged up in fall camp”—but he’s done well in practice.
Other notes from Held:
>> Unless an injury pops up or something major changes, Gabe Ervin, a Georgia runner currently committed to the Huskers, will be the lone running back Nebraska takes in the 2021 recruiting cycle, Held said Thursday night.
>> Also the recruiting coordinator for Nebraska, Held was asked if he thought the early signing period in December has been good for the sport and he was effusive in his praise. It allows kids to end the game, so to speak, early and for teams to have a little bit clearer picture of the landscape as the calendar year turns over.
“I would never go back if you gave me a vote,” he said.
>> Ball security is the emphasis for the program this week against Illinois, a team that has forced six fumbles so far through four games this year. Only Rutgers (with seven) has forced more in the Big Ten. And Nebraska remembers vividly the five Illinois punched out a season ago when the two teams met.
So, if it’s cold and rainy—as is expected to be the case on Saturday—don’t expect to see running backs wearing sleeves. “I don’t care if it’s 36 below zero,” Held said, “you’re never gonna see a Nebraska running back with sleeves in the game.” That was a Frank Solich thing Held picked up. Gotta be able to feel the ball as a runner.
>> Held, and the rest of the coaching staff, has no issue with 11 a.m. kickoffs. Nebraska has been scheduled for the early-day slot in all but one game this season; the one game they weren’t— Wisconsin—wasn’t played. Nebraska’s players are used to practicing earlier in the morning. That’s their routine. Plus, coaches can be home to have dinner with their families, which is a nice bonus on game day. No gripes from NU.