LINCOLN — Don’t feel sorry for Devine Ozigbo. He’s never felt better.
The senior is aware of the narrative attached to him as the Huskers approach the season. In a suddenly crowded room of running backs, the 21-year-old can look like he’s standing still. Offseason buzz surrounded Maurice Washington’s eligibility, Greg Bell’s spring game and Tre Bryant’s health.
The 6-foot, 235-pound Ozigbo — NU’s leading rusher last year — is fine with where he stands. Thrilled, actually.
“This is a fresh slate,” he said. “Nothing to hold me back. If I don’t do it, it’s 100 percent on me. So might as well go out there and do it. I’m excited. I’m heading into fall camp with that attitude.”
To understand Ozigbo’s optimism requires the knowledge of where he’s been. His 493 rushing yards paced the Huskers in 2017, but came on 129 carries (3.8 average). He didn’t play at all in the first two games, seeing the field after Bryant’s injury.
The highlight was three straight 100-yard games, including 112 against Wisconsin. The first 100-yard game, against Rutgers, earned him a live on-field interview with BTN afterward. But he faded in the season’s second half, carrying 62 times for 166 yards (2.7) with no runs longer than 16 yards. He appeared to be in the doghouse with the previous staff, which limited him to single-digit carries in four contests.
Meanwhile, Nebraska finished 112th out of 130 teams nationally in average yards per carry (3.51).
Ozigbo more than doubled his career total with 16 catches but drew criticism when passes bounced off his body for critical pick-sixes against Northern Illinois and Wisconsin.
Those were tough days, Ozigbo said. But count him among those revitalized by the Scott Frost effect. He pleasantly surprised position coach Ryan Held in the spring — Held told him as much — with his versatility. An offseason with strength coach Zach Duval helped him increase his explosiveness at the line, and he’s in better shape to handle upward of eight straight plays in Nebraska’s up-tempo offense.
Held said last week he thinks Ozigbo and fellow senior Mikale Wilbon can be any-down backs after what they showed in the spring.
“I told them that being seniors, they need to be the leaders of the group,” Held said. “They’ve earned the stripes through the years of being in this program. What I see is they can run the football. I mean, they can. They’re physical, they’re strong. Weight room-wise, I have no qualms about anything about them. They can all catch the ball.
“The thing that I wanted them to do is trim up a little bit because it’s a different offense.”
Frost said at Thursday’s press conference that he sees good depth at running back. He mentioned Bryant, Washington and true freshman Miles Jones, who will split time at slot receiver as part of the staff’s “Duck R” spot.
Ozigbo thinks he can insert himself into the conversation, which also includes sophomore Jaylin Bradley.
“I see myself as the running back; if you ask any other back, they’d say the same,” Ozigbo said. “I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do and there’s nothing (the staff) shouldn’t give me a shot at doing. I feel like I have the ability to do everything. I think I’ve shown the coaches a little bit of it.”
A consensus top-60 running back prospect from Sachse, Texas, Ozigbo burst onto the scene with a team-high 21 carries and 87 yards against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl as a true freshman. But even now, after appearing in 32 games, he has only started four — three last year.
Taking charge off the field could help him assume a larger role, Ozigbo said, especially since the running back room never really had a leader in his time in Lincoln. And as much as he has a reputation among fans as a tough between-the-tackles runner, he’ll be going back to a spread attack similar to the one he thrived in as a high schooler.
So all the new burners and accomplished athletes working to take over Nebraska’s feature role at running back? Bring them on, says the veteran.
“I feel like I’m my biggest competition,” Ozigbo said. “That’s the attitude I go on with. I want to make the guys around me better, but as long as I can continue to get myself better, I feel like I’m doing my job.”
Husker coach Scott Frost pleased with the first two days of fall camp
Nebraska is two practices into fall camp, and though there’s been no media access this weekend, videos of a handful of players and coach Scott Frost were released on Huskers.com Saturday afternoon.
Frost said Nebraska had two good days in a row.
“We weren’t one of the top teams in the Big Ten last year, so we have a lot of ground to make up,” Frost said in the video. “We don’t have time for bad days. We’ve had two good days, steps in the right direction. We can’t afford to back up.”
Practice kicks off at 8:45 a.m. every morning, followed by meetings and weight training. The Huskers have not put on pads yet, but will Sunday.
“It’s just exciting,” offensive tackle Matt Farniok said. “We’re playing football again and we obviously don’t have pads on yet, those go on tomorrow, just breaking off the rust getting ready to have some fun tomorrow.”
Junior linebacker Mohamed Barry said he thought the defense has gelled together and played well in the first two days.
“I felt like we were falling back and doing things we were doing in the spring, so that’s a great thing, because that means everything we did in the summer, all the 7-on-7s, people were focusing and buying into it,” Barry said.
Similar to the first day of spring camp, Frost said the energy from his guys was high.
“Energy has been good, I think enthusiasm has been really good,” Frost said. “The guys are willing to do what we ask them, it’s just a matter of making sure they know what we expect them.”