*** Below is story published in Big Red Report magazine's recent summer edition. The story has been updated to include quotes from fall camp.
The setting is June. Around NFL practice facilities across the country, hundreds of rookies are trying to fulfill a lifelong dream of making a pro roster. Ameer Abdullah isn’t one of them. He’s still in Lincoln, Neb., involved in someone else’s dream, working the Huskers’ summer football camp. What a treat for any aspiring high school football player: coaching from a Heisman hopeful.
Abdullah returns for his senior season at 33/1 odds in Vegas of winning the Heisman Trophy. If you asked him, those odds would be a lot better.
“I would like to think that I’m the best back in the country,” said Abdullah. “That’s the mindset you have to have. I’m sure any back would say the same thing.”
In mid-December, the Alabama native requested a projection from the NFL draft advisory committee. Despite what he called a “very high in the first half” grade, Abdullah put his academics and family first – professional football could wait.
“I come from a very modest upbringing. As the youngest of my parents’ nine children, I have had to fight for just about everything I have gotten. Despite these apparent obstacles, my parents were able to instill in their children the importance of family, education, and taking advantage of life’s many opportunities,” said Abdullah. “All of my siblings have completed their college education, with many of them even going on to obtain advanced degrees.
“I have come to realize that life is bigger than football, and that my chances of long-term success in life will be greatly enhanced by completing my college education.”
While Abdullah decided the draft wasn’t for him, it didn’t mean the 5-9, 195-pound back didn’t watch the three-day event in early May.
“You can see how the league is shaping out a little bit,” said Abdullah. “They are looking for playmakers. Everyone talks about how teams are trying to fit needs, but after watching the draft you can tell they are going after the best on the board. At the end of the day that’s how you make your team better.
“It was a great learning tool for me. I’m using it as motivation for me this year. Watching the guys where my stats and attributes were pretty comparable, it was a good basis to analyze myself as a player. I want to take things to the next level.”
One of those players was Washington running back Bishop Sankey, who did forgo his senior year for the glitz and glamour of the NFL. Sankey was selected in the second round, and Abdullah feels the two were very similar in 2013.
“To see him go as the first back in the draft, it gives me a lot of hope,” said Abdullah, who felt Sankey was a first-round talent. “I feel like I can measure up to all the things he has done. He’s an extremely hard worker, but I think that I’m pretty hardworking as well. To see him go gives me hope.”
In all, 22 running backs were taken over the seven rounds, including many in the fourth round.
“There has definitely been a devalue at the running back position. I’m a little surprised,” said Abdullah. “I think at the end of the day you have to run the ball. If you are going to be an effective team, you have to have good running backs. You have to have good running schemes. What you want is a back who can fit all those schemes.
“I look at a lot of those guys and think they can play in a lot of different schemes, just like I can. A lot of guys are going to shock the world. Hopefully I can be one of them next year, but at the end of the day it’s just a blessing to be picked.”
Abdullah already has somewhat been “shocking the world” for the past few years. Mostly recruited out of high school as a defensive back, he had his mind set on playing running back in college, and Nebraska and West Virginia were the biggest schools to offer him at the position. Schools felt he wasn’t developed enough to take the rigors of the position at the next level. Four years later, Abdullah is threating Nebraska’s all-time career rushing record set by Mike Rozier (4,780 yards), needing 1,803 yards this season to break it. It starts this Saturday
“It would mean a lot,” said Abdullah, who usually doesn’t talk about his goals or accolades publicly. “I haven’t been given a lot and have always had to work hard for what I have. I wasn’t given a lot of hype coming to Nebraska and definitely had an underdog role in people’s eyes. I always felt I could do those things. To be where I’m at right now even, it’s truly an amazing feeling”
It is also very likely Abdullah will become Nebraska’s career all-purpose yardage leader next season, as he’s only 812 yards behind Johnny Rodgers for the top spot.
By the way, those personal goals, they rank pretty low on the list when it comes to Nebraska winning.
"Probably like 49th on my list," Abdullah said Monday. "Win is like 1 through 38. And then you've got championship 39 through 47."
To keep it all in perspective, Abdullah has reached out to former Nebraska running back and NFL pro-bowler Ahman Green, who sits at No. 2 on the Huskers’ career rushing charts.
“I have been picking his brain as a fellow running back and a hall-of-famer for the Green Bay Packers,” said Abdullah. “He is their all-time career rushing [leader]. It would mean a lot to pass him on the list and potentially surpass Mike Rozier.”
Much like Taylor Martinez last season, Abdullah has been asked about his legacy at Nebraska, and if setting the all-time career rushing record would cement his place in Husker history.
“I would leave that up to the fans,” said a laughing Abdullah. “I feel like every person has a legacy, every player has a story; it’s something I really learned by watching the draft. So many people come from different backgrounds or different situations. Achieving those accomplishments and becoming Nebraska’s all-time career rushing leader, that would be something to hang your hat on.”
While Abdullah returned to complete his degree, it’s not as if his NFL draft stock can’t improve.
"A lot of guys don't understand how big a jump that is, especially for a running back in the NFL,” said Abdullah. “They chew you up and spit you out, and you really have to take into consideration what the next level holds for people. That's what I really did."
According to the Omaha World Herald , Abdullah has lost possession of the football 20 times over his first three seasons at Nebraska – and 15 of those fumbles were not recovered by Nebraska. Keeping hold of the football was a big point of focus this spring.
“As a back, it’s uncomfortable hearing, ‘He has these issues. Let’s drop his stock here’,” said Abdullah. “I don’t ever want to be content and want to be the best. I don’t like letting my teams down.
“It would make me feel comfortable knowing I could go out and secure the ball, that the coaching staff and my teammates don’t have to worrying about me giving up the ball.”
After 281 attempts last year, it apparently wasn’t a deal breaker for the staff last season. It likely won’t be again this year.
"I know I might have a heavy workload," Abdullah said. "The only way to lighten the load is to take it the distance every time."
And that heavy workload might flow over to special teams as well.
“He’s got a lot of different roles,” said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. “In the return game, as far as returning, we have a couple of different roles for him. Will we use him week one? I don’t know. There are different things that we’ve been working on.
“He’s good at everything he does. He’s got great balance and great strength. And he competes. He wants to be out there and we’re going to use him. I’ve looked at him in a number of different roles.”