Mantra at RB: Just Stay Healthy

The question surrounding the running backs this Spring isn't about what they can do, what they are going to do or how it's all going to work out in regard to carries. The biggest question is simply, can everyone stay healthy? Some nightmare last year, eh? But we do have to figure out who will be playing and when. So, let's do that.

Going back to the 2007 season, then Running Backs Coach Randy Jordan saw the latter part of the season and a dilemma.

He didn't have any running backs.

Before that season began he had made the comment about how it would be easy to figure out who was going to play, because they would see who gave the most effort. If that wasn't one guy, they would throw in another of the standout group which included Brandon Jackson, Marlon Lucky, Cody Glenn and Kenny Wilson.

But at the end of the season Wilson was gone due to a leg injury, Lucky was nursing a concussion, Glenn had a foot injury hampering him and Jackson would play in the Cotton Bowl with a broken hand.

It got so bad that they moved Major Culbert from safety to running back, the position he primarily played most of his days at the prep ranks.

That's what can happen, and did then and to an extent, though not as dramatic, it happened to the team last year.

Quentin Castille, seen almost as a co-starter with fellow junior Roy Helu Jr., was dismissed from the team. Then there was true freshman Rex Burkhead who had earned his way to playing time his first year with the program.

And before you know it he was out for most of the season with a broken foot. Then there was Helu himself, who injured his shoulder in the monsoon at Missouri , and wasn't his old self until the Huskers hosted Oklahoma later that season.

It got so bad that instead of trying to find something out of the current list of older backs in Collins Okafor, Lester Ward or Austin Jones, current Running Backs Coach opted to go with the only other true freshman to help carry the load, Dontrayevous Robinson.

Jones had gotten some reps, Okafor some later in the year and Ward from time to time, but it was obvious that they thought the skill set of Robinson was going to be what served Nebraska best as an offense started to become…well, offensive, figuratively speaking.

It's one of those situations that if you are a glass-half-full type, you think to this year as a great situation, because they were able to establish experienced depth. If you look at it the other way, you are thinking of what might have been had Nebraska not gotten slammed so hard at that position.

Well, this is the year, and knock on wood, if they all stay healthy, this should be a quality situation for the Huskers.

But first let's get out of the way what I think should be obvious:

Roy Helu Jr. is your starter

Despite his fumblitis last year which can be credited more to being hurt than having butter fingers, his status as a starter should be about as concrete as it gets.

It's not to take away from Burkhead, because he's solid. Actually, that's exactly what he is. I might be wrong on this, but I looked at Burkhead as the everything-back. He may not have the size of your normal short-yardage back, but he runs with great pad level and seemingly with as much force as backs much bigger than he is. And he's capable of bouncing it outside or finding a crease in the middle. Also, and perhaps most important, he's dependable. It's almost like saying someone has a great personality, but for him it's truly a compliment.

He's dependable when it comes to ball security. He's dependable in decision making at the line. He's dependable when it comes to just giving you positive yards. But the other side is that he's not a burner. He has good speed, not great speed. He's not a scat back. He's got good elusiveness, not great. Now Helu isn't a burner or that scat back type either, but even with his physical prowess, he does have an agility that belies his size, and this kid can move once he gets in the open field.

I actually compare Burkhead to former Huskers like Brandon Jackson and Correll Buckhalter. There wasn't one thing they did which identified them. They were simply good at absolutely everything.

Between the two of them, and again I have to throw in the idea that both will stay healthy, this is one very solid tandem, maybe the best in the league.

Normally, this is where you get into speculation about number three. But I think based on last year we have our answer already.

Dontrayevous Robinson probably had himself pushed into service long before the coaches wanted him out there. But while out there, outside of one fumble in the eight-turnover game that was the debacle against Iowa State, he's been pretty solid. And potentially, he might be that short-yardage sledgehammer the Huskers sorely need and don't have anywhere else. Even if someone like Burkhead can get you those yards at times, for his sake it's probably not best to use him like that all the time. Go with the bigger guy, and at around 220 or more pounds, I think Robinson can be that. But he's definitely a north-south runner. While there is some agility there, he's best between the numbers. I don't envision any time coming around where he's going to be a primary target on the toss sweep.

That would instead go to the top two guys, but also Marcus Mendoza, who seems to have found himself in the land of in-between. Not big enough at running back to be an every down kind of guy, and for whatever reason he wasn't working out at wide receiver. So, back to behind the quarterback (most of the time), and his strength is what it's always been – getting the ball in space. That makes him a situational guy. But with decent ball skills coming out of the backfield and obviously very good speed you have to think that he'll find his opportunities. We just don't know when and where.

Behind him are a host of guys who are trying to be every down guys. They are trying to break into the mold of dependable, reliable while being thought of as someone who can make plays.

Both Collins Okafor and Lester Ward each had spots during last season where they got some time on the field as did Jones.

Jones' problem was that with this size he was going to need a hole to begin with, and it seemed every time he got the ball he had a defender draped all over him before he could even turn up field. Ward showed some good things, and maybe some of the most surprising parts to his 10-carry season were those instances he was asked to run right up the middle. The surprising aspect of it came from the fact that he not only gained yards, but for someone 6-3, he was amazingly agile in a crowd, able to avoid taking any really big shots. That's as much instinct and vision as it is teaching. I would have to think that his role, whatever that may be this year (move to wideout maybe?), will increase based on just the little bit we saw. As for Okafor, he certainly looks the part, and his speed was certainly impressive at the prep level. There was a time where it seemed like he left the team, but then returned. Is he all-in? I think he's physically one of the more put together running backs Nebraska has. I guess we'll have to see if he can translate that to the field.

All in all this is a great group of backs. But you do have to ask yourself if is Nebraska is cursed when it seems they have an entire stable of backs at their disposal, because before you know it they are actually looking for someone to play.

Helu seems to have it figured out now the difference between hurt and injured. It's admirable when a player goes out there and competes despite the fact that they are hurt. But as his two unforced errors against Iowa State proved, sometimes it's better to sit…which he did for most of the rest of the game. He's dynamic. He really is.

While I could say that he's much like Burkhead in that he's not a star at any one aspect, but solid in every other – we have seen Helu make some amazing plays. Cutting against the grain and outrunning the speedy Oklahoma defensive front and linebackers to the edge. He can do it all and sometimes he's simply exciting.

Not having a great year last season when you consider how long that injury kept him out or limited, he still got over a grand on the ground and outside of that defense, was no doubt Nebraska's savior on offense.

I look for him to have a big year, but I look for the same for Burkhead.

This is going to be a fun group to watch over the Spring and just cross your fingers that everyone who started the Spring upright, ends the Spring the same way.

RUSHING              GP-GS  Att Gain Loss  Net   Avg  TD Long Avg/G
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Helu Jr., Roy        14-14  220 1193   46 1147   5.2  10   63  81.9
Burkhead, Rex         9-0    81  360   14  346   4.3   3   34  38.4
Lee, Zac             13-12  103  315  144  171   1.7   1   32  13.2
Robinson, Dontrayevo  8-0    39  176   11  165   4.2   2   23  20.6
Green, Cody           9-2    31  170   12  158   5.1   2   49  17.6
Paul, Niles          14-14    3   50    2   48  16.0   1   30   3.4
Ward, Lester          5-0    10   44    6   38   3.8   0    9   7.6
Jones, Austin         5-0     7   18    0   18   2.6   0    8   3.6
Washington, Latravis  4-0     3   17    0   17   5.7   0    7   4.2
Mendoza, Marcus       7-0     4   11    1   10   2.5   0    7   1.4
Okafor, Collins       1-0     1    9    0    9   9.0   0    9   9.0
Cotton, Ben          14-1     0    0    0    0   0.0   1    0   0.0
TEAM                 10-0    10    0   68  -68  -6.8   0    0  -6.8
Total..........      14     512 2363  304 2059   4.0  20   63 147.1
Opponents......      14     465 1709  405 1304   2.8   7   46  93.1

Roster
No. Sort by Number
Name Sort by Name
Pos. Sort by Position
Ht. Sort by Height
Wt. Sort by Weight
Yr. Sort by Eligibility Year
30 Hays, Mike FB 6-1 235 Jr.
48 Legate, Tyler FB 5-10 225 Jr.
37 Thomsen, Kevin FB 6-2 235 Jr.
10 Helu Jr., Roy IB 6-0 215 Sr.
28 Jones, Austin IB 5-10 210 Jr.
32 Mendoza, Marcus IB 5-10 190 Jr.
29 Okafor, Collins IB 6-1 225 So.
Taylor, Zach IB 6-0 195 Fr.
14 Ward, Lester IB 6-3 215 So.
22 Burkhead, Rex RB 5-11 200 So.
Heard, Braylon RB 5-11 180 Fr.
27 Robinson, Dontrayevous RB 6-1 215 So.
34 Wallace, Jeremy RB 6-1 230 So.
31 Zimmerer, C.J. RB 6-0 220 RFr.

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