The I-Back (more commonly known as the running back) is an important position in football. It is an even more important position in Nebraska football. Just look at all the different ball carriers that have come through Memorial Stadium.
Obvious ones are Mike Rozier, Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green. Can’t forget Roger Craig, Calvin Jones and I.M. Hipp. More recent, they’ve had Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah. Heck, even Johnny Rodgers took snaps in the backfield.
But since Abdullah, who has there been? Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. Don’t get me wrong, those guys are good players that could be great in the right system. But there lies the problem. These three years with no star running back had one thing in common: Mike Riley.
With Riley, passing came (and always will come) first and foremost. Now with Scott Frost as head coach, the run game will be emphasized within his fast-paced, option-based attack. But who’s going to carry the rock?
Lean On Me
I think Nebraska has a lot of talent in the backfield. Having as much as they do, a lot of people think Nebraska will run with a ‘committee’ rather than one bell cow. While that makes sense, usually running by committee means you don’t have anyone good enough to separate themselves. And in this offense, you need someone to rely on. Last season, UCF ranked 33rd in the country in rushing offense. Nebraska sat quite a bit lower, at an embarrassing 119th (yeah, it hurts my eyes, too). So, who do we turn to?
Well, if we need a bell cow, look no further than the name. Greg Bell is JUCO transfer from Arizona Western, where, in two seasons, the team went 20-2 and Bell was first-team All-JUCO both years.
He is a talented runner, with both the speed and physicality to be an every-down back. At AWCC, Bell averaged around 114 yards per game on about six yards per carry. He has the look of being Nebraska’s next star in its lineage of talented ball-carriers. Even Coach Frost thinks so. He said that Bell stood out at the team’s second practice on Tuesday morning.
Not So Fast
He will have competition, mainly from Nebraska’s star back from a year ago.
Wait, star back? I thought Nebraska was a bad rushing team?
They were, but not for the first game and a half. That’s how long Tre Bryant played and also how long it took him to rack up nearly 300 yards on six yards per carry. That’s a ridiculous 100 yards per half. Yes, a jaw drop is appropriate.
Trouble is, he only played six quarters, and it might be a trend. Bryant has degenerative knee troubles and it has already limited him this spring. It’s a shame, too, because seeing him go toe-to-toe with Bell would (and still can be) a joy to watch. He, like Bell, possesses both game-changing speed and tackle-breaking power.
Another Joins the Fray
If it’s power you like, Devine Ozigbo is the back for you. More in the line of Imani Cross or Roy Helu than Ameer Abdullah and Marlon Lucky, Ozigbo never goes down after one hit. After becoming a star at the beginning of his sophomore year, an injury and mysterious benching up through the middle of last season left us wondering if he’d carry the ball in Lincoln again.
All those questions were answered when he returned with a bang. He racked up 493 yards in the last part of the season. Even though he only averaged less than four yards a carry, a beat-up offensive line and a team that seemingly gave up could be to blame. Ozigbo never did, however. He kept grinding and getting the tough yards.
Don’t let the big frame fool you, though. He is deceptively elusive and, according to Coach Frost, he has slimmed down a little bit. Better watch out, Greg and Tre.
This season could have some Devine intervention.
Don’t Count Me Out
While I believe Bell, Bryant and Ozigbo are the frontrunners for the starting job, there are three other backs on the roster who could turn heads with a big spring.
Maurice Washington was a four-star prospect coming out of Texas and was listed as ESPN’s fifth-best running back and a top 100 player. He was the MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game, where he scored three touchdowns and had 159 all-purpose yards. As a senior in high school, Washington averaged 10 yards per carry and amassed 2,112 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns.
Washington is all speed, all the time. That’s probably what got Coach Frost grinning from ear to ear when Washington put the ‘N’ hat on during National Signing Day. One problem with Washington, however, is actually getting him on campus. Washington has academic struggles and it is still unknown if he will qualify for Nebraska. If he does, though, watch out. He could catch some eyes and run away with the job. Literally.
Washington isn’t the only little guy with speed for days. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley is small but makes up for it with his talent and heart. One of the few Nebraska kids Mike Riley added in his tenure, Bradley was only a three-star coming out of Bellevue West.
It must have been his stat line in the championship game that caught Riley’s eye: 36 carries for 249 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately, Bradley wouldn’t even get that many carries all season last year, even when the Huskers were down big or playing games that mattered less. Bradley showed flashes in his 24 carries, however, and is a hard enough worker that seeing him jump up the depth chart wouldn’t surprise me.
You’d think that being the second-leading rusher on the team a year ago would put Mikale Wilbon in better standing. While we don’t know the official depth chart (he’s anywhere from 3-7, most likely 5), Wilbon doesn’t stand out enough.
He has good speed, deceptive strength and elusiveness has always been his best quality. But nothing game-breaking about him. One thing he has over most of the competition, however, is experience. He has 112 carries in Division 1 football, only trailing Devin Ozigbo.
What About Us?
The race for Nebraska’s starting running back already has six contenders. Any more than that would be borderline absurd. If I’m being honest, the race actually comes down to three or four. But everyone loves a good dark horse, right? Wait, you mean Bradley and Wilbon aren’t the dark horses? Not even close.
Miles Jones is a three-star athlete prospect who will take snaps everywhere on offense, inside, outside, slot and even backfield. He totaled 1,830 all-purpose yards with 16 touchdowns his senior year. Early rumors say he will start off as a running back, but I think Jones will play more of the Swiss Army Knife, ‘offensive-weapon’ role than a defined position.
Moses Bryant is a state-record holder for career touchdowns and is one of the most prolific high school players in Nebraska’s history. He might start out as a defensive back, but if he gets a chance on offense, this is a kid with 5,454 career yards.
Wyatt Mazour was a star in last year’s spring game, but that didn’t translate to playing time. If he makes a jump and shines in spring again, this kid from small town Nebraska could make some noise. Also on the roster are Tanner Hass, Sean Lambert and Brody Belt. All three are Nebraska kids and will simply be depth on scout and special teams.
Next Thursday: Nebraska has two All-Big Ten receivers that will be back and better than ever under Scott Frost. What kind of seasons can they put up? Historic?