For a fourth year, we’re counting down the 10 most intriguing Huskers. I wrote about who would have earned spots 11-20 if the countdown was extended out and shared a look at the previous three groups of Huskers from 2018, ’19, and ’20 earlier.
The intent of this exercise is to highlight players who might have the largest impact on the upcoming season, one way or the other, with their play. It’s not a ranking of the best players on the team and it’s not even really a rundown of the most important players to accomplish X, Y, and Z. It’s as the name suggests: the most intriguing talents on the roster.
No. 7: Gabe Ervin Jr.
Truthfully, any of Nebraska’s running backs could have taken a spot in the top 10. Several of Nebraska’s running backs could have taken up real estate in the top 10. Part of the intrigue of running back coach Ryan Held’s room is that he has six scholarship backs all offering something a little different and all possessing underclassmen eligibility in the eyes of the NCAA.
Gabe Ervin Jr. is the pick here because, well, he’s the most fun of all the options to think about. The young man is a true freshman. A brand new option for Held. A youngster who isn’t exactly wet behind the ears, standing 6-foot-1, with a listed weight of 190 but he told media after the spring he’d added a lean 10-15 pounds since getting on campus.
A young man who should have been in high school this spring, but instead was one Nebraska’s campus going through spring ball and actually becoming one of the most reliable practice players in the process.
This was a young man who showed up ready to hit the ground running. In high school, Ervin was surrounded by greatness; Buford is a prep powerhouse in the South. Particularly at running back, Ervin was no stranger to competition. He might have been a career starter somewhere else, but in 2018 Buford had a pair of running backs sign with Michigan and Florida State, then in 2019 had a running back sign with Texas, then in 2020 had a running back sign to go play at Charlotte. In total, this is a program that has put 104 players on D1 rosters since 2000. Big time stuff.
And Ervin had to wait his turn. But his high school career ended with back-to-back state titles, the final one coming after a move to 6A, Georgia’s largest class. As a junior, he averaged nearly 7 yards a carry with 13 scores. As a senior, he topped 7 per carry and produced double-digit touchdowns once again, taking more of an active role in the passing game as well.
“He can do everything that we need a running back to do,” head coach Scott Frost said on signing day last December. “I think he’s big enough to run physical, he’s fast enough to potentially give us some more big plays. He catches the ball well out of the backfield.
“His junior tape was really good, but his senior tape I was super impressed with. … Gabe’s a guy I look forward to coaching.”
Projecting out long-term, he feels like a back who can be a 220/230-pound guy that never comes off the field. He runs hard, he shows good balance, he has exceptional speed, and he makes guys miss in the hole.
“He’s got really good vision and he’s really smooth in what he does,” Held said. “He’s slippery. He can get through there on different things. He catches the ball well. It means something to him. He wants to be really, really good. He’s mad when he doesn’t execute a play right and that’s what I want, I want guys where it bothers the heck out of you if you don’t do it right.”
A track athlete as well, Ervin ran a 48.9-second 400m in high school. At nearly 200 pounds. That’s remarkable. Perhaps he was underrated coming out of a talent factory kind of state. Perhaps the churn of high-level running backs held him a little under the radar. Nebraska’s gain. Ervin’s tape looks promising.
He hits the hole when he needs to, and then he breaks away. Ervin showed well in the spring. He was encouraging in the spring game. “I feel really comfortable,” he said after that May 1 scrimmage. “My first time getting out there, I had to get adjusted to the new game speed of college. But after that it just started clicking and rolling.”
Held wants two or three from the group to emerge. He challenged some this summer to cut weight and all to treat the dog days like a never-ending competition. Said Frost at spring’s end: “Those guys need to grow up fast because they’re going to have to play Big Ten football coming up real soon, so I’m looking forward to more progress from them.”
Ervin provides the lengthiest discussion in the room because he theoretically has the most growth to make. Markese Stepp, a USC transfer and a sophomore, has the most experience of the group but missed all of the spring. Rahmir Johnson has the most experience in a Nebraska uniform but also missed all of the spring. Marvin Scott III was the No. 2 back last year as a true freshman. Sevion Morrison and Jaquez Yant are second-year players who have yet to see the field in an actual game.
Ervin would be right there with those last two in terms of experience, but Yant and Morrison have at least had an extra year of sitting in the playbook. Ervin signed for Nebraska just seventh months ago.
The average first-year running back just doesn’t produce a ton at the Power Five level. In a pool of more than 400 Power Five running back signees, going back five cycles, 11 ran for 1,000 yards in their first year (2.5%), 27 ran for at least 700 yards (6.1%), and 273 ran for fewer than 100 (61.8%).
Now, eight of the 11 top performers were ranked outside the top 250 recruits in their respective classes (and five were outside the top 500). The high-profile running back prospects get opportunity, but that doesn’t immediately translate to production.
As any who play the recruiting game will tell you, fit and development matter just as much as stars and ratings. Ervin, a 3-star and the 688th overall prospect in his class by the 247 composite, is a nice fit in Nebraska’s offense with a skillset and body that translates well to this level.
Does he defy the odds?
It’s certainly possible, however statistically unlikely it might seem. Nebraska likes the young man. He wants to compete and be great. We shall see.
Can he win the job in fall camp? I suspect Nebraska will give him every opportunity to try. Ervin was available in the spring, and that work will get rewarded in some form or fashion. If Stepp and Johnson are slow to return to the fold after injury, or one of the younger backs doesn’t attack summer conditioning the way Held wants, Ervin could very well get his shot.
Nebraska needs a running back to establish himself in the backfield.
Last season, Nebraska’s two quarterbacks—Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey—accounted for 54% of the rushing attempts and 57% of the rushing yardage. Of the 55 explosive runs the Huskers had in 2020, 37 of them came from quarterbacks. Generally speaking, that position has run more in Frost’s first three years in Lincoln than at either of his previous two schools.
With McCaffrey gone and unproven options behind Martinez at quarterback, Nebraska has even more incentive to lean on its stable of tailbacks. It needs to be able to keep Martinez upright throughout a full season; you can’t scheme out the scrambles from Martinez’s game (and frankly shouldn’t want to if he’s healthy), but you can insulate him more from the burden he’s carried in recent years to move the offense with his legs and his arm.
While I’m still not sold Ervin is ready to be an every-down back right away, it’s impossible to ignore the way his stock shot up this past spring. Fall will provide us with an entertaining competition at running back. Ervin will have a chance. And that’s all a young back can really ask for.
“That’s why I picked Nebraska,” Ervin said. “I want to compete against high-level people. I just have to come to work every day and do what I do.”
And we’re all very anxious to see exactly what that is.