Projecting The Depth Chart: Running Back

In our next look at projecting the depth chart, we take a look at running back. We know who the number one guy, but number two has become quite an interesting scenario. With the loss of Quentin Castille, this group behind Roy Helu is going to have to get sorted out and quickly. Here's how we think it will go, at least early on.

Projected Depth Chart
Position Player Change
Running Back
1 Jr. -  Roy Helu
2 Fr.  - Rex Burkhead
3 RsFr. - Lester Ward
4 So. - Austin Jones
5 So. - Marcus Mendoza  
6 Fr. - Dontrayevous Robinson
7 RsFr. - Collins Okafor
8 RsFr. - Jeremy Wallace
9 Fr. - C.J. Zimmerer

Notes: Notes: Everyone knows that Roy is the man. Had Quentin Castille remained, that wouldn't have changed. But just as certain as that is, it's as much a definite that Castille would have been a major factor this year. When you have two backs the quality of Helu and Castille, you have some wiggle room, of sorts. You aren't desperate to find that third guy, though, you will want to figure out who that is along with a fourth. Now you are one injury away from having to rely on players who have no starting experience whatsoever and most have never played a snap in Division 1-A. Rex Burkhead's emergence has been a surprise, simply because we have seen the trials and tribulations of freshman backs in this system trying to figure it all out, and the blocking has been a particular issue.

Being smart doesn't mean you are going to get it. But between Burkhead's work ethic, which is apparently impressive, and the fact that he's a very sound runner with the ability to be physical at the point of attack, he's gone from prep legend, to potential contributor in college, now to someone we know will play and will have big expectations thrust upon them.

Spring scuttlebutt had redshirt freshman Lester Ward teetering on that top three. He's certainly a lanky back, standing 6-3 and weighing 215 pounds. But Ward apparently has a slipperiness to him which allows him to work between the tackles. There's no doubt that just as a byproduct of his size, he could be a potentially solid receiver coming out of the backfield. He's reported as having good, not great speed, but very good athleticism and while he's not physically robust, he's said to be effective in getting positive yards after contact.

Austin Jones is that do-everything type of back, but he's a solid kid, meaning he's stacked, weighing 210 lbs., while still being two inches short of six-foot. Reported as being a tough-minded kid, he's got great leg drive and you don't have to worry about him having the mentality to rush the ball inside. But you have to wonder if he has the ability to make positive yards consistently when holes aren't there.  Jones' all-purpose nature makes him a viable back to be sure. And he's been here two years, so at least in regard to experience with the system, he should have a leg up on most of the rest of the competition.

One would say that he's actually put together a little better than Burkhead. But we don't think Jones'  has  Burkhead's pure athleticism. Where you will find the difference, and it's a big one, will be explosion to the line of scrimmage, the ability to cut laterally when the inside-play has broken down and just sheer straight-line speed. Both are good backs, but Burkhead's athleticism is probably the biggest difference between the two.

One name which has surfaced very recently is Dontrayevous Robinson, the other true freshman running back. We believe this has to be a direct result of the dismissal of Quentin Castille. While there isn't a lot of concrete stuff being said as to just how he is doing, his 6-1 and approximately 220 lbs. frame make him the most ideal back, physically, to work in those short-yardage situations. The danger here is in the offense becoming predictable with him in the backfield, and coming off an injury his senior season, we have to wonder just where he is in terms of his athleticism, his cuts and his straight-line speed. If he can't do anything other than hit the hole with the hopes of bowling people over, it's going to be harder to see him getting reps down the line. Defenses will just be expecting it when he's on the field. But with the loss of Castille, and based on Robinson actually getting reps with the second unit, we have to think that he may see the field right away if only to get a measure of what kind of physical and athletic presence he can be.

Along with Robinson, redshirt freshman Jeremy Wallace poses that kind of physical force in being able to run inside. But through Spring and Fall we simply haven't heard his name much. At 6-1 and 230 lbs., the guy is obviously a load, and that may be good enough to get him at least a look this year in short-yardage situations. Nebraska will have to find that back, and if Robinson can't get it done Wallace might have to be the guy.

True freshman C.J. Zimmerer is a bigger body himself, standing right around six-foot, but weighing 220 pounds. Honestly, I wasn't sure how long he would stick here, because he might have been seen as someone who could move over to play linebacker or potentially even play fullback. Like Wallace, that could be his opportunity to get on the field, but also like Wallace, at least right now, it would be in a situation which would become very predictable by defenses. Zimmerer isn't your speed back. He's not going to give you a lot laterally in terms of elusiveness, cutting ability or straight-line speed. But there's no reason to think that if the Huskers are looking for a sledgehammer, he might be another candidate for that.

The recent move back to running back from wide receiver for sophomore Marcus Mendoza could be a good one, but probably in a pretty limited role. Mendoza is a gamer, and for someone his size he's very, very physical. But he's not going to make bread by trying to do that consistently. Where his value lies is being able to get the ball to him in space, which means you might be motioning him out wide at times, and he's a perfect candidate to run those pitch outs or toss sweeps. One area where Mendoza can excel at, though, is hitting the hole quickly. As Running Back Coach Tim Beck said over this Fall Camp, those holes aren't there very long, and you have to be able to hit them as fast as possible. Mendoza isn't likely going to give you a lot of yards after contact, but there's no doubt that his speed and open-field moves make him a valuable player in certain situations. But the situation is key, and once again, you don't want to get into a predictable format with him. But his value in being able to catch the ball coming out of the backfield will be used this year.

The one player we haven't been able to figure out as of yet is redshirt freshman Collins Okafor. It's hard to think that he doesn't have the athleticism, as he was timed at a Nebraska camp running in the 4.4-range. Plus, he's 6-1 and 225 lbs. That doesn't change the fact, though, that we simply haven't heard his name come up either during the Spring or the Fall. We aren't going to close to door on him just yet, because it can't be an intelligence issue, and I'm not ready to think that his athleticism was just woefully overrated. There's a lot of potential with this kid, and we'll have to see how this year plays out. Maybe a move to linebacker? It's hard to say, but as for running back we just haven't heard him come up much at all.

What the symbols mean:
- Projected Starter
- Position on depth chart improved
- Position on depth chart down
- Position on depth chart unchanged


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