Like the defensive backs, the running back situation at Nebraska is going through big changes.
The Huskers return their top four running backs, including Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant, Markese Stepp and Gabe Ervin Jr. That foursome combined to rush for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns last season while gaining 4.5 yards per carry. It was a group that, for the most part, failed to impress.
The room lost two backs to the transfer portal in Sevion Morrison, who landed at Kansas, and Marvin Scott III, who’s now at Florida Atlantic. But there were three additions to the room, too. They come in the form of one junior-college transfer in Anthony Grant, one 2022 class high school recruit in Emmett Johnson and one coach in Bryan Applewhite.
Applewhite will be the Huskers’ new running backs coach, taking over for the now-departed Ryan Held, who is the new offensive coordinator and associate head coach at North Alabama, an FCS program. Applewhite spent the past two seasons at TCU, where he coached the position under longtime Horned Frogs’ head coach Gary Patterson, who parted ways with the school in late October last year after a 3-5 start. Patterson, by the way, was recently hired as a special assistant to Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian.
A veteran coach with more than 20 years of experience that includes stops at Colorado State, Louisiana-Monroe, Montana State, Wyoming and Northern Colorado, Applewhite has his work cut out for him in Lincoln. But during a recent interview on ‘Sports Nightly’ the coach sounded very fond of Grant, the lone junior-college addition in the running back room.
“Anthony’s an explosive kid, he’s got tremendous vision, his start-to-stop for a kid his size is unbelievable for what he can do with the ball in his hands,” Applewhite said. “He’s got incredible instincts, he’s tough, he’s got great hands out of the backfield. I was just tickled to death and excited to get the opportunity to work with him.”
That’s good news for Grant, a 5-foot-11, 210-pounder who spent two seasons at New Mexico Military Institute, the most recent of which resulted in a national championship. Grant played in a run-heavy offense at NMMI that only passed for over 200 yards in three of its 13 games in 2021. In two seasons and 20 games with the Broncos, Grant, who spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons at Florida State, rushed for 2,549 yards and 28 touchdowns with a stellar 7.1-yards-per-carry average.
Like Casey Thompson, Grant will be viewed as a candidate to start in his first season in Lincoln. But as is the case with other position groups, he’ll need to win the starting job. Despite their rocky performance in 2021, it may be too early to count out the returning backs.
While each of the four returning backs had brief moments where they flashed in 2021, inconsistent playing time and a hard-to-understand rotation left the fanbase wanting more at the position. No one truly emerged as the dependable feature back that the coaches would have liked to see.
Johnson ran hard and provided a receiving threat in the backfield—his six-catch, 105-yard performance against Michigan that included a 41-yard touchdown reception down the sideline was memorable—but at 5-10 and 185 pounds, he had injury issues and missed the final two games against Wisconsin and Iowa.
The Big Ten is a league full of large, physical defenses. So it makes sense that large, physical running backs tend to hold up better throughout a season. The conference’s top four rushers—Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, Michigan’s Hassan Haskins, Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen and Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson—are all over 200 pounds. That doesn’t mean Johnson can’t play—the New Jersey native has speed that the other Nebraska running backs don’t have. It’s good for offenses to have a change-of-pace back, and Johnson can be that.
The 245-pound Yant and the 230-pound Stepp fit the mold of the bruising runner that seems to do well in the Big Ten. But both faced their issues during the season that kept them off the field.
Since his 13-carry, 127-yard outing against Northwestern, Yant’s playing time varied. He averaged just four carries the next four games and didn’t get one against Ohio State. It’s been well documented that Yant was going through a maturation process as a young player in the program.
“Those who really love you will discipline you when they need to,” then-interim running backs coach Ron Brown said of Yant on ‘Sports Nightly’ in November. “I love Jaq, and we all do. And we did what we needed to do in terms of the protocols of this university and also our football team. He didn’t do anything really drastically bad, but we have some team rules in certain things. So we needed to deal with that, we needed to pay rent on that. The debt has been given and we move on.”
After being benched for the Wisconsin game, Yant did well enough off the field to get the start against Iowa in the finale, but was held to 44 yards on 13 carries. If everything comes together for the Florida native, Yant has all the tools you want in a big back.
Stepp’s highlight of the season came against the lone FCS opponent on the schedule, Fordham. That day he rushed for 101 yards on 18 carries. After that non-conference game, though, the Southern California transfer, who didn’t compete in the spring due to a foot injury, received only 24 carries in five games.
Ervin showed promise as the first true freshman in the modern era to start a season-opener at Nebraska. The Buford, Georgia, native—that’s the same hometown of Grant—seemed to be finding a groove when he gained 56 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo, but that promise was put on hold when he went down with a season-ending knee injury at Oklahoma.
The team will have to wait until spring practice to see how confident Ervin is on his repaired knee. If fully healthy and back to his old self, that would be a big development for the running back room. Ervin showed that he was willing to do the dirty work as a three-down back, which many times involves helping in pass protection on third down. Ervin seemed to enjoy that part of job, and was good at it:
I could watch Gabe Ervin Jr. in pass pro all day, every day. In each of the three games he's helped keep the blitz away from Martinez. pic.twitter.com/kXjGQ9Xtel
— Steve Marik (@Steve_Marik) September 12, 2021
Emmett Johnson, the lone running back recruit and a three-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite, was voted Minnesota’s Mr. Football after a senior year that included 2,484 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns while averaging 7.6 yards per carry. It’s hard to picture Johnson coming out of the competition in position to get meaningful reps during the season, but Ervin did it last year. That should tell Johnson it’s not entirely unrealistic.
As National Signing Day nears on Feb. 2, the Huskers might not be done adding to the running back room. Ajay Allen, a three-star prospect in the 2022 class according to the 247Sports Composite and current TCU commit who Applewhite offered while still working in Fort Worth, recently visited Lincoln and has an offer from the Huskers. If the 5-11, 182-pound Allen decides to flip to Nebraska, the Huskers would get their second high school recruit from Louisiana, joining three-star receiver Decoldest Crawford.
With ace recruiters Mickey Joseph and Bill Busch now in the mix, the Huskers would gladly welcome a stronger presence in the fertile recruiting grounds of Louisiana. Getting a signature from Allen would help grow Nebraska’s brand and catch the attention of the prospects in a state that produced 15 blue chip recruits in the 2022 class and has 17 in the 2023. The Huskers already have three Louisianans on the roster in LSU transfer receiver/returner Trey Palmer and former Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College safety DeShon Singleton.