Steady Progress
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Steady Progress, More Comfort Lead to Breakout Performance for Mills

November 20, 2019

Heading into Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, Nebraska had failed to crack 4.0 yards per carry in three of its last four games. Against the Badgers — one of the best run defenses in the conference — the Huskers exploded for 273 yards and 7.4 yards a pop, both season-highs against Wisconsin.

Nebraska’s backs had some gaping holes to run through most of the day as the offensive line moved bodies all over the field, something they haven’t done much of all season.

“The improvement has been slow and steady, and that’s what you want,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said about is group. “You want slow and steady improvement in anything. If I’m teaching my 5-year-old how to ride a bike, then I’m looking for a slow and steady improvement in that regard, just like I’m teaching a guy to pass set. We had a couple bad snaps on Saturday; we have to improve there too. Nothing’s ever done. It’s always a mindset that I’ve got to continue to progress. If we continue to keep that same mindset, continue to work on the small things, the little things, the eyes, he hands, the footwork, those are the things that make you successful.”

Junior running back Dedrick Mills, the primary beneficiary of the running room, has taken notice of that steady progress by the offensive line.

“They blocked really well and we see these big holes and gaps we probably didn’t see at the beginning of the season as they progress throughout the rest of the season,” Mills said. “They’ve slowly picked up more and more stuff and started blocking better and better each week. They are ready to play and are going to continue to do the same thing.”

Mills ran for a career-high 188 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against the Badgers. He averaged 11.1 yards per carry with nine chunk runs including a 43-yarder. Mills said his coaches told him he “played like a dog” and didn’t let one defender stop him.

Running backs coach Ryan Held said Mills’ performance is the result of continued work in progress and, like with the offensive line, steady improvement.

“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. “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 last year. 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, ow the blocking is. It really helps those guys get better and he’s been determined to go out and get better each week.”

The 17 carries were a season-high for Mills, besting the 15 totes he got in the season-opener. He hadn’t cracked double-digit carries since the Northwestern game when he had 10. In fact, he had only totaled 169 yards on the ground in the five previous games combined. But with Maurice Washington not with the team and Wan’Dale Robinson in street clothes, Held had to ride with Mills and the junior delivered.

“It’s knowing the game plan and knowing when the guy’s got a hot hand and knowing to make sure that you try to put the right guy in for that particular concept or play,” Held said about handling his rotation. “Obviously I don’t know everything that’s going to — I can’t read minds, but I have an idea of what’s going on. That’s a challenge, the musical chairs piece of it. That’s why you want everybody to be able to do everything, but knowing that different guys have different strengths. Obviously we had the hot hand with Dedrick on Saturday. We kept rolling. I said last week I like my running back room. We’re going to keep fighting and keep getting this deal right.”

Since Washington began struggling and even more so after his departure from the team, Nebraska has relied on Robinson to be more of a featured running back than the hybrid player they recruited him to be. 

Robinson ran the ball 77 times over his last six games including carry totals of 19 against Illinois, 22 against Indiana and 14 against Purdue. During those three games, Mills logged a total of 26 carries and averaged less than 4 yards per carry. Finding a way to get both Mills and Robinson going in the same game will be important for Nebraska moving forward, especially if they can get consistent production out of the backfield from Mills, allowing Robinson to play all over the field.

“Wan’Dale is a dual guy,” Held reiterated. “He is a receiver that can play running back at times. We obviously had to use him just due to necessity, but at the end of the day he’s a receiver. He’s a guy that if we need him to come in the backfield and runs  play here and there, but his development needs to be at receiver so we’ll continue to do that. That’s what we recruited him as, that’s what his ling-term projection looks like with us, and then we can steal him at running back for fly sweeps and all that. But his long-term deal is that’s what he’s going to be is a receiver that can do it all.”

While discussing Mills’ performance after the game, Coach Scott Frost credited the coaches for a great game plan and mentioned that they put in some stuff that Mills was a little more comfortable with.

“We’re growing together is what I would say,” Held said. “He’s come to work every day to get better. We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the year — wish we would have had this back or missed that cut — but I think he’s been able to see it and rectify it for the most part. Now we have to continue. We have to go up against Maryland and we can’t be a one-hit wonder, right? We’ve got to be able to go out and do it again.”

Robinson has not yet been cleared to return to practice, so Mills should get another opportunity to take the ball and run with it on Saturday. Maryland is 11th in the Big Ten in both rushing yards (174.2 per game) and average (4.3 per carry) and is second to last in touchdowns allowed (22), tied with Nebraska.

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