Cody Glenn was hampered by injury last year, on top of apparently being at odds with the old staff, and only ended up with 27 carries, 78 yards and two touchdowns. After Glenn there was a pair of freshman that saw time in Quentin Castille and Roy Helu. With Glenn now at linebacker, and Castille and Helu having a year under their belts, the running back position could be one of the most solid positions on offense in 2008.
Here is the post-spring report card for the running backs:
1. Marlon Lucky - For Nebraska to be successful next year, the Huskers will need the seniors starting in the offensive backfield (Lucky and Joe Ganz) to take a step forward in terms of on the field leadership. Lucky can get it done as a running back on the field, but what has been missing from his game is being a leader. He has the numbers and the role on the team. He just needs to take that next step.
Lucky averaged nearly 85 yards rushing per game last year and I don't expect that number to change all that much. While Lucky had a huge number in receptions, 75 passes for 705 yards, you could actually see another number close to this to make up for what Nebraska is lacking on the outside with their wide receivers. You might even expect the yards per completion to go up. It's not impossible that Lucky could be a 1,000 yards rushing/1,000 yards receiving guy next year. Lucky will never be an explosive, violent runner, but as a pass-catching and sometimes big-play runner, he has found his niche.
Roy Helu - Helu was originally recruited out of San Ramon Valley High School to play fullback at Nebraska. A violent runner, Helu demonstrated that at the collegiate level that he can do more than just run hard. Helu has impressive speed which allows him to get to that corner like no other running back can do at Nebraska right now and then get up field. Helu can also catch the ball, as displayed against Ball State and Oklahoma State.
Helu wasn't the most heralded of the three running backs in 2007, but could have the most potential now because he plays big, his speed and he's versatile. Helu took some huge steps forward this spring in securing that #2 spot behind Lucky and to really separate himself from the other young running backs because of his consistency and reliability. Look for Helu to play a big role in 2008 and may cut into some of Lucky's time and carries.
3. Quentin Castille - Castille is a punishing rusher with deceptive speed. Against Nevada, Castille had 78 yards rushing in his debut. Against Oklahoma State, Castille ran for over 100 yards. If there is a knock on Castille it might have been that he was too big before the attention started to shift to an apparent fumbling issue that has continued to plague Castille this spring.
Simply put, you can't be a physical style running back and be effective if you have problems holding onto the football. Castille is going to have to get this problem under control to really push for #2 time. If Castille can whip the problem of coughing up the football and comes into the fall in shape (240 pounds or so) then Nebraska's stable of running backs looks diverse and deep. Castille could be a key to the success of the offense this year.
4. Marcus Mendoza - Despite enrolling at semester last year and getting a chance to partake in spring practices, Mendoza should be listed behind the two other running backs that were in his recruiting class (Helu and Castille) that enrolled in the fall. Mendoza is that "niche" running back that Nebraska needs to change things up a bit. Mendoza is small, but lightning quick. He is also a dangerous weapon out of the backfield as a receiver.
The knock on Mendoza is that he is a small running back that runs small. Some of that, last year, was probably due to being overwhelmed with the offense and college in general. This year Mendoza has had a year to work in the system and needs to find a role in that niche and find a way to be productive. Mendoza might have also been looked at to be an answer on special teams this year, but after two botched returns the Huskers might have to seek better alternatives. Mendoza needs to continue to develop and gain confidence in the offense. He's a work in progress.
5. Kenny Wilson -I am not sure where to put Kenny, to be honest, because I am not sure if he has a future left in Lincoln. A leg infection followed by a broken leg kept Kenny out of action last season and has led to him getting limited action this spring. As a senior, this is not the way that Wilson planned his Nebraska career the day that he signed with Nebraska
Wilson enters this fall as really the X-Factor to me. If he can get healthy, Wilson can really supplement Lucky. If Wilson is healthy, Lucky could potentially find himself working more as a supplement in the passing game than last year. There are just too many ifs to really count on Wilson being a factor this fall. If Wilson is healthy, this could be a boost to the Nebraska offense. If not, the stable is pretty full with a top veteran and two young running backs that cut their teeth last season.
6. Austen Jones -Let me be honest here and say that I don't know a lot about Jones. I know that he is a walk-on. I know that he is friends with Menolik Holt. I know that Jones scored on a pass from Zac Lee to round out the scoring in the 2008 spring game. Jones also added 3 carries for 8 yards with a long of 5 yards.
While the touchdown was good to see, this is the age old "he looked good in the spring game" trap. I like it when players get a chance to shine in games like the spring game and blowouts, however you must consider the competition that was on the field at the time. Jones appears to have good size and speed and will help to have in the stable to push the other running backs. Back up role and doubt that he sees meaningful time this year.
Here is the post-spring report card for the fullbacks:
1. Thomas Lawson - Lawson had a quietly good year last year, especially in the receiving game. Lawson became a weapon in the red zone with three grabs, all for touchdowns, and was serviceable as a blocking back.
Having players like Lawson on the team will help Nebraska when it comes to finding players that can step up and make plays in the red zone and score. Lawson could see some of his opportunities cut if Kyler Reed comes in and plays as anticipated from the H-Back/fullback position. The difference between Reed and Thomas receiving the ball is night and day. Reed could be a huge weapon for Nebraska.
Overall, this position has some real star capability out of the upper-classmen and promise from the up and coming underclassmen. If there is one thing that is still missing, and I mentioned it under Marlon Lucky, it is that there is a severe lack of leadership from the position. As Helu and Castille come into their own as players this could change. The Huskers have options to supplement the wide receivers too with players that can catch the ball out of the backfield or to even line up as receivers. Expect the Nebraska running backs this fall to be involved in all areas of the game. Also look for players like Kyler Reed and potentially Lester Ward to add their presence in the backfield with the speed and ability that they will bring to the table. The running backs will be expected to shoulder a huge load this fall.
Up next…offensive line.