Nebraska Football Coaches Scott Frost and Ryan Held Talking
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

With a Retooled Running Back Room, Huskers Hope for More of a Downhill Punch

April 06, 2021

Nebraska wants to get downhill with the football.

Offensive line coach Greg Austin said last week they’ve worked on adjusting some of their concepts to get tailbacks running downhill quicker and more often. Running backs coach Ryan Held shared a little more insight into what that entailed on Monday

“It’s a matter of some of our footwork stuff that we’re doing that will allow us to get more downhill,” he said. “Some presentation things will allow us to get more downhill in some of the different run concepts we’re doing.”

It’s a clear emphasis. 

“We definitely have added a few new wrinkles I think will help,” Held said. “We’ve got to be able to be a downhill, physical team.”

Nebraska has slowed the tempo in practice to hone the details of plays. Austin has challenged his linemen with finishing every block through the whistle. “Can’t stick on blocks,” he said,” if you’re tired as shit.” Held is challenging his runners to read and hit. 

“This is a league where 4 yards is a good play,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to make sure we’re not in long-yardage situations so that first- and second-down production is very key. You’ve got to be able to run the ball.”

Nebraska was in standard downs a fair amount a season ago (first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer); its 71.9% rate ranked 20th nationally. On standard downs, Nebraska had the ninth-best success rate. When Nebraska got into passing downs, the efficiency plummeted. 

Teams want to stay in advantageous situations, where they can conceivably run or pass and still pick up decent yardage. For Nebraska, it needs to be able to accomplish that goal with help from the running backs. 

“We’ve got to get more production out of that position,” Held said. “We have to. We’ve got to be able to run the ball and be consistent in seeing our cuts and being able to really be an asset to our offense.”

The distinction between having production and being an asset is an interesting one from Held, sort of cutting to the heart of the issue in the run game. Nebraska statistically was a good running team a season ago, but it’s production came in somewhat untraditional ways.

Three of the top four rushers by volume were not running backs. And three of those four guys are no longer with the program. The non-Dedrick Mills running backs who saw the field averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Adrian Martinez, whose 91 carries and 521 yards were both team bests, is probably looking to cut down on his rushing attempts. 

“The last game, you saw it, we ran the ball more and Dedrick (Mills) had a really good game,” Held said. “That’s kind of how we want this deal to go. For various reasons—injuries, inconsistencies—we weren’t consistent at that position.”

Mills had 191 yards on 25 carries against Rutgers to close out the season. Nebraska had one of its better offensive days against the Scarlet Knights. 

NU has talked about wanting to incorporate more of a power run into its spread style, but Held is tasked this spring with getting his room to a point where it can handle those demands. 

Mills is preparing for the NFL and Wan’Dale Robinson, the wideout Nebraska turned to when Mills battled injuries, has transferred. 

“I feel good that we have everybody here, now it’s just a matter of we have to go out and practice to get it right,” Held said. 

Sort of a good news/bad news situation on that front. The Nebraska assistant who’s probably had to deal with the weirdest springs since this staff’s arrival has everyone on hand for a spring period—a rare occurrence. 

But…

“I have Marvin (Scott III) going through his first offseason, Sevion (Morrison) going through his first offseason, (Markese) Stepp going through his first offseason with us, Jaquez Yant going through his first offseason, Gabe Ervin (Jr.) should be in high school right now,” Held said. “The good thing is we have everybody here. I’m not waiting on two more guys, three more guys, another guy. We’re all here. Now we’ve got to be able to go out and grow up and get it done.”

Ronald Thompkins, a third-year redshirt freshman, has impressed Held. 

Ervin, the first-year early-enrollee, has as well. 

Rahmir Johnson, a classmate of Thompkins, added weight this offseason. 

Morrison, a second-year man who had a bout with COVID last season, is healthy and factoring in. 

Held said it’s a big year for Johnson, but in reality, it’s a big year for all his guys. Nebraska needs one of them to break through and the door is wide open for any one of them. Stepp, a transfer from USC, would seem to fit the bill if Nebraska is hoping to run it right at teams. 

“He’s a guy that you can see when the ball is downhill, he can hit it,” Held said. “He’s a downhill runner. I think he’ll definitely give us that element, which we definitely need from an older guy. He’s played in big-time college football.”

While at USC, the 6-foot runner once totaled 82 yards during a road contest with a ninth-ranked Notre Dame squad. It’s some experience, but he’s still new. Because of USC’s passing game, the pass-protection piece of the position was a pretty easy pick-up for Stepp at Nebraska. 

Some of the running concepts were similar as well. “He’s picked it up really well,” Held said. After missing out on it a season ago, Held has some ground to make up with spring ball this time around. 

“It just takes time to be able to learn what’s happening pre-snap, what’s happening post-snap, where the ball might hit, where our pass protections are, the timing of screens,” he said. “You gotta be able to do a lot as a running back here. It just takes time, you can’t speed up time.”

Every single thing they do is being graded. All spring, all fall. Bad ball-carrying technique? Points come off the board. Fumble the football? Get a zero grade and you’re doing push-ups after practice. Held wants to find multiple guys, but he wants to make clear who the consistent ones are. 

“What does it mean to you? Are you going to take more time to be a student of the game? Because those are the guys who are going to have the best chance of putting themselves in a position to be successful,” he said. 

It’s probably a step too far to forecast wholesale changes to Nebraska’s offensive attack, but Held and the Huskers certainly appear to be doing some retooling at the running back spot. 

“We’ve got to be tougher,” Held said, “take care of the ball, and really put ourselves in a position where we can be a position of strength.”

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