LINCOLN — The lead running back has yet to emerge. But maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing as Nebraska’s most unresolved position extends its dead-heat competition into the second week of fall camp.
If one running back has taken over as a dominant playmaker through a handful of practices, the news is shrouded by a conspiracy that includes the coaching staff and teammates of the group battling for carries. Two workouts open to media members have also yielded little in the way of clear separation of those toting the football.
The popular takeaway: Everyone looks good and anyone could bust out beginning with the Sept. 2 opener against Arkansas State.
Well, maybe not anyone. NU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf last week described a leading four-man rotation of juniors Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon, sophomore Tre Bryant and true freshman and Bellevue West grad Jaylin Bradley. This many rushers are “heavy,” he said. But they’ve each been effective so far.
So effective that the discussion has begun to shift from worrying about finding a feature back to exploring how to best utilize some newfound depth after the now-graduated Terrell Newby anchored the position the last two seasons.
“You’d love to have one take off with the job,” Langsdorf said. “That hasn’t happened yet. You always have some concern about hits and tired, but you also want a guy that can get into that groove and that rhythm of the game. So we’d rather not have a bunch of guys playing, but they’re all worthy of playing. They’ve looked pretty good, so we’re trying to sort that out still.”
Members of the offensive line have also seen equal merit from the quartet. Junior left guard Jerald Foster said each back has his own standout trait, whether it’s the tough-between-the-tackles Ozigbo, the speedy Wilbon, the well-rounded Bryant or the explosive Bradley.
“I can’t really say who stood out to me; I would say that they all have some kind of specialty to themselves,” Foster said. “So we’ll see who exactly plays when the game gets here. But I like all of them back there. They all believe in us up front, which is the big thing. As long as they’re behind us, we’ll be able to get some movement and they’ll be able to get their runs.”
Finding a distinction in the competition so far has been about details, running backs coach Reggie Davis said. All are good at executing screen plays, for example, though Wilbon (5-foot-9, 200 pounds) and Bryant (5-11, 200) are “probably” best in Davis’ eyes, while Bradley and Bryant have the best hands. Wilbon has the most speed of the group. Bradley (6-0, 180) has the most to learn, but has turned heads with his high-level playmaking ability. Ozigbo reported to camp as trim and healthy as ever after the 6-footer was listed at 230 pounds last season.
Newby led the Huskers in rushing last year (879 yards, averaging 4.6 per carry) followed by quarterback Tommy Armstrong (512, 4.5). Next were Ozigbo (412, 4.2), Bryant (172, 4.0) and Wilbon (89, 5.9).
With coach Mike Riley saying last month that the screen game will be a bigger part of the offense as directed by quarterback Tanner Lee, catching passes out of the backfield appears to be a bigger emphasis this fall. The returning trio combined to snag just 17 balls for 190 yards (Newby made 18 catches for 149 yards) during the 2016 campaign.
Contrast that with what Riley’s Oregon State offense did in 2013, when running backs Storm Barrs-Woods and Terron Ward combined for 720 yards on 81 catches. That approach — going heavy on quick passes, screens and draws to help a struggling offensive line — is one the coaching staff believes it finally has the personnel to execute.
“All of the guys that are running the ball I think are running the ball great,” said junior Cole Conrad, who has the inside track in the center competition. “I can’t single out one and say, ‘This guy’s doing this,’ or whatnot because I think all of them are doing a great job.”
The lineman said the backs are clicking now, and it’s “way better” than in spring practices. No rusher stood out in the spring game either, with all three candidates finishing with three to seven carries and 25 to 49 yards on the ground. Boone Central grad and sophomore walk-on Wyatt Mazour stood out that day, running six times for 60 yards and a touchdown while making six catches for 81 yards.
With more than three weeks and a pair of scrimmages between Nebraska and real games, Langsdorf said all the lead contenders are “interchangeable.” And his tone of voice suggested that might not be so bad.
“As a whole, that group’s looked really good,” Langsdorf said. “But as we start to hit them (in full pads), I think it’ll sort itself out.”