Countdown to Spring: Running Back

Guess what? Go ahead. Guess. Well, you already know the answer to the question, because you have been living it for…oh…your entire life. It's Husker football. No need for a Calendar here in the Husker state. It is what it is, as they say. Well, now it's Spring football, and here we go with our position analysis as we lead up to March 25th,the first day of Spring practice.

I have to admit something: As I was putting this together, I was going through the players, who would be favored, who had work to do and who we needed something to see from before we could have a real feel for what they would do.

And then I started throwing names in there, the obvious ones being Roy Helu Jr., Quentin Castille, etc. But you have to include newer faces like Collins Okafor and Lester Ward. But then I went a step further. I started writing in the names of Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson.

They're true freshmen to be.

They're not even here.

Oh yeah, it's Spring.

That's how it is here, ya know? Football season never ends, and you get caught up in preparing for one, when you realize that this is nothing more than a series of practices before a long off-season and then the season will begin.
Roy Helu Jr. should be the
man this Spring

But this is a season unto itself, because this is where some players can really separate themselves from the rest of the pack, perhaps step up like they haven't before. Maybe it's players who just have to keep on doing what they were doing, so they can show consistency during a set of practices which will be more physical than anything they will see until an actual game.

I bet you can't tell these players or these coaches that this isn't like getting ready for a season. In a lot of ways this is where it all begins and ends. You show up here, and you have set yourself up for a spot come the Fall. You don't show up, and you will have a lot of catch up work to do.

So, let's get down to it, the Spring SEASON preview, and we'll go it at just like we would a regular year. There are favorites, darkhorses and some who might not even be on the radar. Let's start with running back.

Running Back


Gone are 29 starts courtesy of Marlon Lucky. With him goes 4,244 all-purpose yards, which includes 1,136 he produced in the pass-game, coming out of the backfield. While Lucky didn't have a stellar 2008 campaign, he was easily Nebraska's move proven all-purpose back.


Someone else has to step up


The odds-on favorite for that job will be Jr. Roy Helu Jr. Helu finished the2008 season with a team-leading 804 yards on the ground, including a 157-yard effort against Oklahoma. Helu followed that performance up the next week with 115 yards against Kansas, and then closed out the regular season with a career-high 166 yards against Colorado. All seven of his rushing touchdowns were scored in 2008, including two two-touchdown performances in back-to-back weeks against Kansas and Kansas State.

Castille built momentum in the
Gator Bowl which should
propel him into this Spring


While not as tested in the passing game as Lucky, Helu has been productive, averaging over 10 yards per reception as he caught 30 balls for 306 yards in his first two years, all but 40 of that coming this last season.


The basic report on Helu is that he's a true all-purpose back in the sense that there isn't one thing he can't do very well. He explodes to the hole, has great speed to the corner, and when he gets into the open-field he's not easy to catch.

A compliment to that finesse is a physicality that allows him to make holes when there aren't any or to be able to pick up a couple of extra yards with his feet. He's got solid balance and good field awareness, as well.


What Helu will have to prove this year is that he can be as consistent in the passing game as he is with the ball in his hands in the backfield. Lucky was simply a natural receiver coming out of the backfield, able to look back for the ball and with a lot of fluidity, make that turn up field. Where the two differ the most is in speed as Helu has the advantage, and Helu is very good in the second level after he makes that first cut, whereas Lucky had issues beyond that first count, getting through tacklers for bonus yards.

Fellow junior running back Quentin Castille finished his sophomore campaign in style, averaging almost seven yards per rush against Clemson in the 2009 Gator Bowl as he piled up 125 yards on just 18 carries. There was no doubt that with both Lucky and Helu sidelined that game, Helu going out early with an injury, Castille was a major factor in Nebraska being able to finally best the Tigers, 26-21.


The main issue with Castille, though, hasn't been ability, as he has shown on numerous occasions that he's obviously very powerful, but has deceptive agility and feet as he's able to get positive yards running outside of the tackles. For his career the 6-1, 235 pounder has 810 yards rushing, the junior rushing for 343 yards his freshman year while he totaled 467 as a

Marcus Mendoza may find greener
pastures lining up outside the O-line
instead of behind them
sophomore. His career-high came against Oklahoma State as a freshman, when he totaled 102 yards on 20 carries against Oklahoma State.


The problem has been turnovers, Castille finishing the season with four.


Another issue is in the passing game, and the simple fact of the matter is that he's not gotten the opportunities, catching only 12 balls in two years, totaling 142 yards.


Castille, due to his size, is seen as a short-yardage threat, with the ability to get positive yards outside of the tackles. But right now it's hard to say what he can do, can't do or where he fits best.


Another player at the position who seems to have found a fit, but not necessarily at running back, is sophomore Marcus Mendoza. At maybe 5-10 and maybe 185 pounds, Mendoza's forte' obviously doesn't involve his ability to break tackles, punch holes and find lots of opportunities in goal line situations.


He's pure finesse, a shifty-elusive-ankle-breaker with serious speed.


While Mendoza has 15 carries for 110 yards to his name, along with a touchdown, versus only two receptions for seven yards as a receiver coming out of the backfield, there's no doubt, especially when you look back to high school film, especially on special teams, to know that this kid in the open-field is flat out dangerous.


You might remember back to former Husker Tierre Green's freshman year in 2004, where he was serving second string in the backfield behind Brandon Jackson. Green ran what seemed to be close to the same play every single time, a toss sweep to either the left or right side. It was effective at times, Green averaging almost seven yards per carry that year, as he totaled 284 yards for the season.


But you can only run so many toss sweeps with the same guy before they simply don't work anymore.


That's been the dilemma with Mendoza, because his size makes him a situational guy. But he's such a potential playmaker with the ball in his hands, there really aren't enough situations on offense you can involved him in order to really take advantage of his ability. That's why you may see him this year split out wide more than you will see him behind the QB.


Waiting in the Wings


Outside of the aforementioned group, the leading returning rusher on the team is junior quarterback Zac Lee, with a whopping 17 yards on two carries.


While we can't say for certain that the Huskers will be platooning their backs again this year like they did last year, it seems safe to say that there will be some new names joining the ones above, but, of course, it's going to be nearly impossible to know what to expect from each.


RsFr. Collins Okafor
– A definite all-purpose back type, Okafor
On paper Collins Okafor is
a solid fit to become another
all-purpose back at Nerbaska.
That will be tested this Spring.
had  close to 400 yards receiving as a senior at Omaha Westside. Then you factor in his size,  at 6-1 and 195 pounds, he's someone that at least on paper, looks like he can do the job. The basic report on Okafor is that while he doesn't have the best burst in the world, he's got superb straight-line speed. And while he's not looked at being as agile as Helu., he's solid in his ability to move laterally and with his feet.  It would be hard to consider him physically a carbon copy of Marlon Lucky, physically, but that's not a bad comparison to make. And with a year under his belt, even if it's been mostly Scout Team work, Okafor should no doubt get his chance this Spring to show what he can do.


RsFr. Lester Ward
is another all-purpose type back, but his 6-3, 215 pound frame doesn't lend to the idea that he's going to be doing a lot between the tackles. Of course, not all things are as they seem, and the blocking could be good enough all year that Ward could be seen as viable as a consistent performer on first and second downs. But you think back to Leon Jackson, who had a little thicker build than Ward, and he was definitely more of a threat to go outside the tackles than in. But Ward's size make him an interesting target coming out of the backfield in the receiving game. Does he have enough grasp of the offense to do that? He's a smart kid, so we'll assume that the obstacle that is the system itself won't present too much of a problem. But physically, it's going to be interesting to see just where he fits in. Wide Receiver anyone? I wouldn't be surprised to see him work there at least somewhat this Spring.


Soph. Austin Jones
– An actual product of the walk on tryout program, Jones doesn't have any pressure on him to get on the field, but he'll have a ton of competition. At 5-10 and 205 pounds., Jones is a thicker back. But He averaged close to six yards per carry his senior year at Smoky Hill HS in Aurora, Colorado. So, you might not want to pigeonhole him completely into a potential short-yardage role only. It's hard to say what he can do athletically, but I wouldn't be super shocked if he puts on more weight, to see him serve some part time duty at fullback. The fullback might not carry the ball, but they do get the ball out of the backfield as a receiver.


RsFr. Jeremy Wallace
-  His senior year at Bryan High School in Omaha, Nebraska, Wallace notched over 1,100 yards as a running back and 115 tackles as a linebacker. At 6-1, 220, that means running back might be a short stay for him. He certainly has the size and athleticism to be a running back, but there is a lot less established competition at linebacker right now than at
Lester Ward is like Mendoza in that
with his frame he may be better
suited to play wide receiver.
Nebraska is going to be in need
of some playmakers at that position.
running back. Wallace will more than likely see some special teams work early on, which is probably where we might get a good idea of just what side of the ball he'll fit best.


RsFr. Jordan Makovicka
– No, they haven't moved him to fullback, and it's doubtful that will ever happen. This Makovicka has a more streamlined appearance than his older brothers, now former Huskers, Joel and Jeff.  And Justin Makovicka, who will be going into his junior year, should have that starting spot all to himself. For the youngest one of the brothers four, Jordan is very athletic, has both solid burst and speed, and like any good member of that family, he's not afraid to put his head down to get a few more yards. Probably what is the most appealing from a physical standpoint is that like Jacob Hester was for LSU, this Makovicka could be one of those backs that might not be your most used back, your most productive back or the flashiest. But he'll  be solid, tough and could be an invaluable third down threat.

Overall

OK, we all know Helu is the guy. He's got the most athletic versatility, bar none. Burst, physicality, straight-line speed, and the ability to be an effective receiver out of the backfield.

If he's healthy, he's the guy.

But with this whole way of how the running backs are rotated, which I can't say just how they work that, Helu could be the best back, but not have significantly more carries. Castille is a definite asset, and it always comes down to his ball security issues as to whether or not he can be consistent. But if he is, he's a weapon to be sure. You simply don't want to tackle this guy from the front. Mendoza is a situational guy in the backfield, more of a consistent threat as a receiver.

As for the newcomers, our own odds have Okafor, Makovicka and potentially Ward seeing time this Spring, because two backs can't carry the load for the season. So, there are going to have to be backs who are at the very least, serviceable back ups. All of those mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph do that, along with giving Nebraska a little more versatility in the backfield as a whole.

What the group gives you is a little flash, but a lot of punch. Out of all the backs seen as full time running backs, this group should be trademarked by its ability to be just as physical as it is fast.

But again, Helu is the man, and he'll give Nebraska a versatility they haven't seen since a healthy Brandon Jackson was on the field. But I think this staff will take full advantage of Helu this time around as he'll become a full version, that being both running back and receiver. Nebraska didn't have a thousand yard back last season, but they will have one this year. Helu should get that and then some.

One has to remember, though, that Spring is a time for experimenting. It's also the time where the team will be tested far more physically than they will be any other time outside of the actual season.

Ward and Medoza at wideout? Wallace on the other side of the ball? Jones at fullback? That's the great thing about Spring, , because even though it seems like we are getting ready for a season in Nebraska, this is simply trying to figure out what you have, what you don't have and where you have to go. 

The running back position shouldn't look a lot different as to the versatility. It will probably get better. But It's going to be interesting to see if older players step it up and the newer-more untested players on the team, establish their identity, which will follow them throughout the long off-season as we prepare for Fall.


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