Abdullah was one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises last season, running for more than 1,100 yards filling in for the injured Rex Burkhead. He's a known commodity now, but he's still the same guy who lives by the mantra that every day is another opportunity to improve.
"I'm hungry, just as hungry as I was my freshman year, and I'm anxious to prove things that I feel I need to prove," the junior said. "It doesn't change my work ethic. It doesn't change my attitude toward this season just because I'm in a different role."
Abdullah has come a long way since arriving in Lincoln from Homewood, Ala., two years ago. He attracted little fanfare when he signed, but of the three running backs in the 2011 recruiting class, he's the only one who remains.
With Burkhead in camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, Abdullah is the undisputed No. 1 running back for the Cornhuskers and maybe the best in the Big Ten. His name even appears on some early Heisman Trophy lists, though a ways down.
"It's great and it makes you feel good," he said. "It's just lip service until you do it. I don't really like to feed into all that stuff, all the expectations, predictions, preseason polls. None of that stuff means anything."
Big Ten coaches named Abdullah to their all-conference second team last season. The shifty 5-foot-9, 190-pounder had six 100-yard games, finished with 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 178 yards and two more scores.
If Abdullah is planning for bigger and better things, he isn't telling anyone — even his friends back home in the Birmingham, Ala., area.
Abdullah trained at the gym of former NFL defensive end Otis Leverette when he was in high school and works out there when he's home on break. Leverette said he and Abdullah have talked for hours about football over the years. But Abdullah goes into a shell when it comes to talking about himself.
"I wanted to talk about his possibilities or shot at being a Doak Walker candidate or possibly winning the Heisman," Leverette said. "He's always going to say that he just has to keep getting better. He believes in keeping the goals small and letting it evolve into bigger things. I know he has bigger goals. His goal was to become a premier college running back and have a shot to play in the NFL. Last year was a part of that overall goal from the day he left Birmingham."
Playing in an offense led by fourth-year starting quarterback Taylor Martinez and complemented by a strong group of receivers, Abdullah is poised to match or exceed last season's numbers.
"He did a phenomenal job of learning how to carry the ball 30-plus times in a game while doing all the things Rex used to do," running backs coach Ron Brown said. "Rex was a heavy inside runner. Ameer was tagged as an outside runner, but he demonstrated the ability to do the meat and potatoes and get up inside in the tough Big Ten Conference."
Abdullah burst onto the scene in 2011 when he returned a kickoff 100 yards to break open a win over Fresno State in the second game of his freshman season. More than that, Brown said he remembers Abdullah volunteering for any and all grunt work on special teams.
He had been overshadowed by Aaron Green and Braylon Heard on signing day. Brown said he could tell Abdullah's attitude and work ethic — he's a voracious weight lifter — would carry him further than the other two. Green transferred to TCU after one season and Heard moved on to Kentucky last spring.
"There are enough special-teams roles where you can demonstrate speed, toughness and courage, and Ameer took that to heart," Brown said. "You look at the guys who left. Their roles on special teams were pretty dog-gone minimal. People want to leave because they sometimes feel a sense of entitlement. That's what I love about Ameer. He had to wait to make his contribution as a running back, but he didn't sit still waiting for his turn."