On a gorgeous November day in Lincoln, Nebraska broke tendency.
Wisconsin at the time had a top-flight, run-stopping front seven. Nebraska made the cheese heads from Madison watch their beloved defense turn to Swiss cheese. Dedrick Mills out-performed the illustrious Jonathan Taylor, sporting an 11.1 yards-per-carry average to Taylor’s 8.2.
(Reset the gag reflex—yes, Nebraska must fix its run defense woes—the following is meant to bring good vibes only.)
For the better part of the 2019 campaign, Mills was used as a table-setter for others. Nebraska ran him up the middle time and time again in order to open things up elsewhere. Fifty-eight percent of the junior’s carries came on first down last season. Sixty-four percent of his carries were designed runs between the tackles.
For the first half of the season, Nebraska got slim pickings from its up-the-gut running but stuck to it in order to open up stretch runs, bubbles and option keepers.
Head coach Scott Frost peppered in off-tackle runs for Mills here and there, but little materialized.
Then Wisconsin gets to town and Nebraska sends Mills every which way but straight ahead to begin the game, completely catching the Badgers off guard. Mills got four carries to the right and left before being sent up the gut the first time, which resulted in a score from 12 yards out.
Perimeter action this time setting the table for pounding the rock.
Mills’ directional splits against the Badgers were unlike any other game of his season: four carries off left tackle (a 27- and 21-yarder), seven carries between the tackles (7.14 yards a tote), and six carries off right tackle (16, 15, 11, and 43 yards). Nebraska blocked better than it had all season, and frankly better than it would the rest of the way. Play-calling complemented execution.
Small sample size, you might think. Consider that Mills had a total of seven carries off right tackle in the previous six conference games combined to that point. Consider that 13 of Mills’ 15 carries in the opener against South Alabama were between the tackles, as were 5-of-8 carries against Colorado and 9-of-11 against Northern Illinois.
(One particular sequence against the Huskies saw Mills get the ball up the gut three straight plays, gaining 3 yards on first, 4 on second and another 4 on third. Quarterback Adrian Martinez then kept a handoff and ran off right tackle for a 10-yard score on the ensuing play. Mills was awfully generous in his first year on campus.)
Overall, the running back’s splits last season are something to behold.
Mills was 5-for-8 in converting third downs with less than 4 yards to go and was batting .750 on fourth downs. Curious, then, that he only logged a total of 14 carries inside the opponent’s 5-yard-line all season. Seven of those came in Week 1 against South Alabama.
The rushing attack aftertaste, even now, six months after the season ended, is a bad one. Mills felt then and still feels now underutilized. He didn’t get a carry in the second half against Ohio State after the flexbone/I-formation wrinkle carved the Buckeye defense up for a drive in the first quarter. He didn’t touch the ball in the third quarter against Northwestern or the first quarter against Minnesota. He didn’t carry the ball at all during the second half against Indiana or Maryland. He didn’t carry the ball at all during the second and fourth quarters against Purdue.
A combined 23 carries in the fourth quarter all season feels strange for a player of Mills stature. A 5-foot-11, 220-pounder who used to play in Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack fits the typical mold of the runner that ages in a game like wine, not cheese. Mills’ numbers would support that theory, too. His efficiency dipped, on average, after the first quarter but then steadily rose again throughout the rest of the game.
Granted, Nebraska only handed the ball off to Mills with a lead on the scoreboard 40 times in all of 2019. There were problems everywhere, but once he got comfortable in the Husker spread system and kicked his bout with fumbleitis, Mills was more of a solution than a problem. And he practically needed to beg for attention before that Wisconsin Saturday.
What’s more, when Frost met with the media to kick off 2020 spring practices, not a single question about the running back room was posed to the head ball coach. Shadows don’t a fitting space make for a bull.
Maurice Washington (50 runs in 2019) has been removed from the equation. Wan’Dale Robinson, who got 88 carries last season, will likely spend much less time in the backfield. Mills was at nearly 750 yards a season ago and he carried the ball 33 times over a four-game stretch before Wisconsin. He came in at No. 6 in my “10 Most Intriguing” list, and I considered moving him up higher.
Against Illinois, Nebraska lined up in the I-formation with Martinez under center, who turned and pitched it left to Mills. Left guard Trent Hixson pulled, left tackle Brenden Jaimes blocked down, as did the two tight ends next to him, and Mills fairly easily shrugged off a would-be tackler to bag a 14-yard touchdown run.
More of that seems in the offing.
Especially in a world where Nebraska’s younger offensive weapons didn’t get a spring ball or a regimented summer workout to develop.
More of Mills seems like it would be a good thing.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.