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Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Taking Stock of the Husker Running Backs on the Heels of Spring Ball

May 06, 2021

With spring ball now in the rear mirror, the Huskers transition to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months as players finish up finals and catch a few weeks rest. 

With coaching limited in the summer, many Husker players will have to take it upon themselves to keep whatever momentum they’ve gained this spring heading into fall camp. With the Huskers’ season beginning on Aug. 28, the start of fall camp is just about three months away. 

This can be a big summer for some, even a crucial period for others, and a time to recover for guys who made waves in spring. So we’re going to take stock of each position room as Nebraska exits spring, highlighting who is where, who is trending up, and any questions remaining. 

Running Back

Projected starter on Aug. 28: Markese Stepp? Gabe Ervin? Shoulder shrug?

Perhaps the most interesting storyline here in running back coach Ryan Held’s room is not that the battle is too close to call exiting spring ball, but that it’s completely unclear where the battle even stands. 

It’s early enough in the calendar year that availability hasn’t seriously eaten into any one running back’s chances of being named the starter yet. Rahmir Johnson, who missed spring ball with an undisclosed issue, could have a monster spring and fall and walk into the season atop the depth chart. Markese Stepp, the USC transfer who also missed spring ball after undergoing surgery prior to its start, could do the same thing. 

But, that grace period doesn’t last forever. Availability can sometimes be one of an athlete’s best abilities—a line that’s a bit clichéd but nevertheless still rooted in truth—and the backs who have been most available so far are Jaquez Yant, Gabe Ervin Jr., and Marvin Scott III. 

All come with question marks, but real intrigue. 

Yant is a second-year freshman walk-on who went for 63 yards on nine carries in Nebraska’s spring game. Impressively, 40 of them came on the first drive of the second half; once tackling began, Yant punctuated White’s first touchdown with a 14-yarder up the middle, a 5-yarder off right tackle, and then a 21-yard touchdown run again off right tackle. He looked at home running into contact. 

“He’s a big running back, and when he hits the ball downfield, he plays with a lot of passion and force,” said tight ends coach Sean Beckton during the spring. “He’s just got to be more consistent with what he’s doing offensively. But he’s been a big surprise for our entire offensive staff, how well he’s running the football.”

Nebraska had a good back-and-forth between its offensive and defensive lines during spring practice; aside from one day, the coaching staff seemed pleased with the way the run game was going. Yant was a part of that. He was there every day, running through his pads into tackles. At 6-foot-2 and what some coaches call an almost-250 pounds, Yant is not viewed as a walk-on running back in the room. Take that whichever way you will. 

Ervin possibly presents the most intrigue, in that he’s a true first-year player, a mid-year enrollee who head coach Scott Frost says should still be in high school but, due to his mature, almost professional-like approach to the game and the tasks in front of him, made headway in his first spring. Held spoke optimistically of Ervin whenever he was asked. 

The freshman had 57 yards on 12 carries in the spring game. He showed good vision and quick feet, once beating a safety around the corner for a nice gain. “When I got here, I was sitting at a good weight, but added 10-15 pounds and they put it on me, and I can move, so that’s a big advantage,” Ervin said after the game.

It remains to be seen how much of a role Ervin can have in the fall right from the very beginning.  He was a 3-star running back coming out of Georgia, though Ervin already has good size for a first-year man. To play in that initial season though is something few running backs do, and those who play a big role belong to an even more exclusive club. 

The average season for a first-year Power Five running back over the last five years: about 170 yards and one touchdown. I looked at 442 backs coming out of high school, and it was a lot of all or nothing. Of the 442, 62% had fewer than 100 rushing yards, 35% didn’t log a single carry, and only 18 guys total had 750 yards or more. That’s not to say that because Ervin was a 3-star recruit he can’t be a factor right away—the numbers didn’t bear out a strong correlation between recruit ranking and production (though it did between recruit ranking and opportunity). We shall see.

Scott is there, too, and he may have had the best spring game of the bunch, rushing for 75 yards on 11 carries. The second-year back looked to have good burst when getting to the second level. On a 39-yard run, he showed off strength to break through a tackle and balance to twist and remain on his feet. He’s also put a number of good bits of blocking on film as a Husker, both in the spring game and during his first year on the field. Remember, he had a key block to spring Zavier Betts’ fly sweep touchdown against Penn State last season, one that earned him kudos from the head coach after the game.

The Floridian has been studying Devine Ozigbo and Ameer Abdullah, trying to pick and mimic pieces of their games. “I look up YouTube videos and watch their playing style, just watch what they do … and how they hit the holes,” Scott said.

Every little bit helps, particularly in a competition and backfield that is as crowded as this one. 

No mention before this point of Ronald Thompkins or Sevion Morrison? Both have talent. Both have intrigue. Both could factor into this deal very quickly with a bit of consistency. 

Frost said before the spring game he was hoping somebody steps up and takes the job. In a literal sense, someone has to be the starter—y’know, the first guy on the field—but in practical terms, Nebraska’s running back rotation could function buffet-style. Everyone eats. 

They’ve been a little leery of that philosophy in the past, but if you have enough good backs sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Nebraska might be in a position where instead of having no outright winner—usual scenarios for by-committee teams—it has three or four worthy of the job. 

Then again, maybe someone comes out swinging this summer/fall and reaches the top of those 72 steps at the Philly Museum of Art well before anyone else.

“(It’s) doing drills when no one else is around and everybody else wants to go to the lake and get on a boat. You decide, ‘You know what? I’m going to go out here and run routes, I’m going to work on my pass-pro technique, I’m going to work on my footwork.’ That’s what it’s going to take,” said Held.

Quotable: “It needs to be ‘Rocky IV.’ We got to get in there and get after it and then be ready to go this fall. I like the room, but we don’t have anybody that’s returning with a whole bunch of experience other than spot play. Our guys are hungry, and they know that the questions are out there: ‘What does the room look like?’ And that’s motivation for us. That’s great. We need that. We’re not going to make any excuses. We’ve got to get it done.” — Ryan Held

It should be noted that Held is asking for that Sylvester Stallone mentality not just in training, but in fueling. Yant, Stepp, and Morrison all need to lean out a little more.

Stock rising:

  • Jaquez Yant (second-year freshman): Yant arrived at Nebraska late last summer after academic concerns kept him from other suitors. Nebraska says it doesn’t view him as a walk-on likely because it knows it’s lucky to have him as a walk-on, and because it knows he’ll likely not be one for long. Yant saw his visibility rise to household Husker name this spring. “If he could be 235, woo, look out,” Held said. It’ll be crucial to not get too carried away with the expectations of what his season could look like, but he’s gone from the outside to very much in the mix. 
  • Ryan Held: Held has head coaching experience already though still just in his 40s. He’s recruited major talents to Lincoln and uncovered real gems. He has a tremendous reputation at the junior college level, is regarded as an excellent recruiter, and has seemingly given Nebraska seven different young running backs who could all vie for the lead job. Held is absolutely earning his keep at Nebraska. He and Nebraska both need a good fall from one of those running backs. That’s important. NU needs a true tailback it can rely on to take the load off Adrian Martinez, but Held has done his part nicely to this point. If one guy pops, Held deserves national acclaim towards the end of the year.

Fall outlook:

Lots of options. Lots of potential. A good coach. A reaffirmed commitment to running the ball. Spring ball has been about positives in the Nebraska backfield. Lots of optimism. That’s all well and good for now, but the nitty-gritty of the position is that before Dedrick Mills’ 25-carry, 191-yard explosion against Rutgers in the final game of the year, the only Husker running back averaging more than 3.8 yards a carry was Ronald Thompkins, who ran it four times in the opener and then only once more all season. And none of the skill guys, not even Wan’Dale Robinson, had a game with 20 carries before that season-ending win. So what kind of running game will Nebraska present in 2021 now that Robinson is gone and Martinez is being backed up by two freshmen with no in-game experience? The potential is there, but Nebraska needs production. Opportunity abounds for this group…

From our “Taking Stock” series so far:

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