2022 Position Preview – Running Backs

This has been one of the more difficult positions for me to get a handle on since Ryan Held has been here. We have pulled in multiple top recruits like Dedrick Mills, Greg Bell, Mo Washington and others, but our best guy has been Ozigbo in the 4 years this staff has been here.

And 2021 added more “I don’t have any idea what’s going on” as a guy that many people had on their transfer watch asserted himself as the workhorse in Rahmir Johnson. Rahmir ended up being our top guy, getting on the field for over double the snaps compared to others once Ervin Jr. went down with his knee injury. While Adrian Martinez led our team in rushing, Johnson was the one that carried the RB room. Most of that was due to his knowledge of the playbook and ability to help protect Martinez on passing downs. I would certainly have him penciled in as the starter in Ireland.

Gabe Ervin Jr. was the first true freshman RB to start a season opener for Nebraska in our football teams long history. And he definitely showed flashes on just why that happened. However, it will be tough to figure out how he fits with our offense in 2022 until we see how he recovers from the injury he suffered against Oklahoma this past season. Typically it’s a two season deal for those. First season you are back but mentally/physically limited, then once everything goes ok you are back at it. Here’s hoping to a speedy recovery to an extremely talented player.

Jacquez Yant is who we will focus on next as he is the guy most Husker fans are enamored with, being that he walked on and earned his playing time. He brings a different element than Johnson, as he is bigger and had the most yards after contact of any of our RBs. I am not as high on Yant as many other people, but his skillset definitely can help in certain situations like Brewington at TE on the goalline.

Next we have the USC transfer Markese Stepp that was the talk of the portal. Having a friend that works for the Trojans, he basically told me Stepp is Mills maybe just a touch faster. His biggest issue would be staying healthy to get on the field. And that happened again this year, as he has had chronic issues in his lower body dating back to high school. While i’m pulling for this kid since he’s had a long run of bad luck, breaking into the lineup is going to be dependent on overcoming something that may be out of his control. Injuries.

I also want to lump Brody Belt into this RB category as well. I understand he’s listed as a WR but he was a guy the coaches knew they could count on, his ceiling is just a bit lower than the guys we mentioned earlier. When injuries started creeping up you saw an increased presence from Belt, and that is absolutely a good “backup plan” for Frost and Applewhite to have. You also have Cooper Jewett and Zach Weinmaster as walk-ons to lean on if things get real tough.

While I don’t think this is the end of RBs in the portal, Nebraska has already seen Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III enter the transfer portal as well. While they had their own injury issues, that leaves the Nebraska RB room somewhat thin for returning talent when you look at Ervin and Stepp injuries, and Johnson/Yant as the healthiest. There was definitely a need to go get more.

The first person we brought in was Ashton Hayes, but he decommitted before signing day so we went into scramble mode a bit to find someone. We end up giving Emmett Johnson out of Minnesota his first Power 5 offer and he nearly commits on the spot. He has some things on film I like such as being able to one cut at full speed, but the holes he was running through were gigantic. How elusive he is will determine his playing time. One of the other reasons I thought Johnson asserted himself as starter was because he was the RB who needed the least to go right for him to get a positive gain. With how our OL has been the past 4 years, if massive holes are needed this could be a tough road ahead for EJ.

But never fear, I think Applewhite and Frost may have pulled a rabbit out of their hat on one. However, this is extremely confusing to me. Nebraska offered a scholarship and took a commitment from Deondre Jackson, a backup RB at Texas A&M. When he got here, our staff/admissions found out he wasn’t eligible to enroll and that meant the earliest he could get here was for the summer. As of now, it appears Jackson is hoping to get here in the summer, but now that he’s not a member of the class his recruitment is “back open”.

This all of a sudden creates an opening for Anthony Grant. Here’s where it gets wild. Anthony Grant did not have a scholarship from us, and was still sitting around waiting to go somewhere despite being the #1 JUCO RB in the country, leading his team to a national title (against Iowa Western), being a first team all-american, oh and by the way he was the JUCO player of the year.

How on earth did we get someone with so many accolades to show up to Lincoln without a scholarship offer? You read that right, Grant didn’t have a scholarship offer until Jackson found out he wasn’t eligible to enroll, which then allowed us to offer Grant. This is all so nutty to me.

The situation reminds me a bit of Omar Manning or Nadab Joseph, top rated JUCO players still sitting their late and Husker fans can’t figure out why. Hopefully he ends up more like Dedrick Mills or Greg Bell with his ability. But the bottom line is we got a guy that should be looked at as a POTENTIAL instant impact guy since we lost two scholarship players and Ervin is an unknown off the injury.

Adding more confusion, we took Emmett Johnson’s commitment without having a RB coach in place. Now, Nebraska will get a visit from TCU commit Ajay Allen (obviously Applewhite recruited him there). The numbers get tight in a hurry, so it will be interesting to see what unfolds if Allen does commit. I’m not going too far out on the limb here, but I think you can expect some portal news from someone mentioned in this post before we get to fall camp. It’s just too crowded, and with a new coach sometimes personalities don’t mesh.

The new hire – Bryan Applewhite

While I will need to spend more time getting to know what he values to get on the field, there are some things that I like about this hire. First, it’s tough to ignore that many of our guys we hired were basically on the unemployment line, but that’s neither here nor there. With what Frost was recruiting against for coaches and with how our last four years have gone, I like many of the hires. I am going to have to delay my thoughts on him as an on the field coach, but there’s something about him that could help us immediately.

One of the main reasons I loved the Charlton Warren hire by Bo Pelini before I knew anything about his coaching was the fact he had massive connections within Colorado which was ripe for the picking, as well as the Atlanta area. Colorado has multiple D1 teams, but no one is relevant right now. Most of those kids are looking for a school but have no affiliation to Colorado, Colorado State, Air Force, even Wyoming. Nebraska is the closest school to them that cares about football in many cases, and even though we don’t play in the Big12 anymore, you can pull guys like Stoll or Domann from there because they love our fans passion and want to play for a program that means something. Applewhite was the recruiting coordinator up at Colorado State in Fort Collins, and also more than likely has developed some relationships in Texas. If nothing else, I think this could help us in those couple of places where a pipeline can be built rather easily.

Summary

I hate to say this, but I don’t think it’s hard to be a good RB in college. Hang with me here… how well our RB will do is up to our OL and the QBs decision making. Don’t get me wrong, an elite guy like Ozigbo, Abdullah, Burkhead, they make things way better, but at Nebraska we shouldn’t need an elite RB to make a bowl game. There’s other stuff that is going on.

I would say Johnson trots out with the 1s during spring camp, but a guy like Grant, Yant, and possibly Ervin/Stepp will be there to have a say. I’m hoping to get to a couple practices to see what a guy like Applewhite covets for playing time. The Nebraska RBs had zero fumbles in 2021, yet Nebraska still averaged over one fumble per game (not lost).

Another factor will be how Whipple installs the offense, or if he just continues with what Frost does. What I mean by that is if we are installing new, do we install everything? If so, the guy that has the best grasp is who we go with. However, if we pick and choose install, it could be easier to go with a guy that is good running a few things as opposed to the whole kitchen sink.

These previews are getting so tough with the unknown on offense, but hopefully they give you a barometer of what we are heading to spring with from a personnel standpoint.

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16 thoughts on “2022 Position Preview – Running Backs

  1. Its high time someone with some true talent becomes a lead back for us. Seems like we havent had one since Ozigbo (aside from Mo and his issues). I am not that big on Yant and honestly, Johnson doesnt do much for me either. I liked Ervin, but am highly skeptical he contributes much this year. Hoping one of these transfer portal guys can learn the playbook and step up and be leaned on. I guess guys like LP, Green, et al dont grow on trees do they? Of course, the O line is likely more important that what RB is back there, because I doubt even the greats could do much behind our line last year. Here is hoping for some good competition, good health and that they are able to pick up the playbook quickly

    1. I am right there with you. I liked Ervin’s potential but we didn’t get to see it. Johnson asserted himself due to injury. Washington had issues but he was a matchup nightmare. Let’s see what Applewhite turns the room into.

  2. Johnson does not get near the credit he deserves. Not only did he play well, but he got better and better each game and before he got hurt, he was starting to play at a very high level. yea hes not big but hes really good and will get better. Even if there is a rotation again, he gives us something in the passing game out of the backfield that no one else can

    1. I’d agree there. Like I said, he was on my portal watch and all of a sudden became more than serviceable. I like what he brings, though i’m not sure he can be elite. I’m hoping we don’t need that.

  3. Vision, Vision, Vision. See the hole, hit the hole, make the first guy miss, or break the first tackle. I do not think you can coach vision, and it is very hard to see a prospects vision on film. You can be the biggest, strongest, fastest running back but if you cant see the hole it doesn’t matter. That is why Ozigbo was so good and MoW was bad. Ryan Held was bad at finding the RB with the best vision. Ron Brown tried to teach vision by telling his RB to learn how to juggle.

    1. One of my first coaches in competitive football, we had a runningback that was 4 time all-state in football and 3 time all state in basketball (kicked off senior year), he came with “sometimes when you yell to hit the hole, the elite guys aren’t hitting it because it’s not there.”

      1. Patience, and knowing when and how the hole will open is all part of seeing it and not just running to set location and hopping no one is there.

      2. I still remember in midget football growing up, they told the RBs if there wasn’t a hole just put your helmet in the OLs back and the won’t make the mistake again. Knowing what I know now…. can’t imagine they were happy.

  4. Just so unsure where we are at in the running game except to say I don’t thinks it’s lack of talent. We have had plenty of running backs that have the credentials. However, we are throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it regarding personnel with very little luck.

    So is it the line or the blocking schemes put in place for them. I’m just sick to my stomach watching the whiffs as defenders are in the backfield at the same time as the handoff.

    Now when you look at it from my perspective and it’s not personnel now it comes down to either having a staff that can construct an effective run block scheme or educate our offensive line to the point they can recognize who to block.

    Now I believe going into the hiring process the lack of running game was a major issue with this offense and something I believe needed to be addressed. It was probably our leading problem towards our lack of success in the red zone.

    So knowing this what steps did we take to address it? Without blaming the hires because they are who they are I just feel we went backwards addressing it. We hired a pass happy OC, we hired a wide receivers course and gave him the title of passing game coordinator and hired an offensive line coach from the pass happy NFL.

    It’s scary to think this season is so dependent on the success of the offensive line and we have turned it over to our least experienced coach.

    1. I think those are all valid points. I can’t get mad at the Bill Busch or Mickey Joseph hire, but I could pick apart the OC and OL hire a few different ways. It’s kind of interesting how we went from “Army OC may be the guy to help run blocking” to pass happy guys like you said.

  5. Still can’t figure out why Grant had no offers and was #1 rated JUCO RB, Is there something academic related or an event that transpired in the past. Seems very odd he had no other offers.

    1. Isn’t that nutty? I tried to subtly mention it in the article, but it sounds fishy. Basically like why other teams may have steered clear of guys like Manning, Green, or Joseph that we got out of the JUCO ranks who were absolute studs in terms of rating/performance. The fact the JUCO player of the year was just sitting there to be scooped up with no other P5 offers is really odd. But if it were academic I don’t believe he would have enrolled in January like he is planning on doing. The other weird thing is he was offered and almost committed on the spot. Somethings up, but i’ll take a talent like that all day long. Just because it didn’t work with Joseph, Green, or Bell doesn’t mean you don’t accept their commitment at Nebraska. You may be able to if you are a team like Bama or Georgia, but we need help.

      I also want to point out that the former coach at NMMI has a book I just read called JUCO Stories and it outlines what those kids go through to go to school there. Discipline shouldn’t be a problem.

      1. There really is no risk taking him. I don’t follow JUCO rankings that closely but has there ever been a time in the last 10 years where the #1 JUCO RB didn’t get an offer from someone, if the academics are in order. I think he was a low 4* out of high school when he enrolled at FSU. JUCO’s always seem to be a hit or miss proposition. Let’s hope things workout.

      2. That’s a good question. Dedrick Mills was the #1 rated JUCO back and the only other offers he had were Arkansas Stat and Memphis, and quite honestly if this guy has that kind of production for us that’s a massive win. I’m just curious why he’s sitting there for us. I would say hopefully we stole him but I feel like the national player of the year can’t be under the radar.

        Bottom line for me is that’s a guy you take all day long. I like it.

      3. So I was wondering similarly about this guy and was kicking a few ideas around. 1 of them is that the running back position has been significantly devalued across the board for years because in modern offenses a lot of great athletes can be good running backs (i.e. NFL teams HATE taking RB’s early because so many late round picks work out, not they don’t care about RB’s). So P5 teams are signing RB’s out of HS and if they really are that good then they are instant impact guys (see Wandale or Wisconsin’s RB’s). And they don’t stay long because they are unlikely to be 1st round picks if they stay and their bodies wear down over time so they maximize their pro potential. If a guy gets beat out he goes in the portal. P5 teams now target instant impact freshman and if they can’t get them then the portal gives them a way of getting someone they couldn’t get out of HS, he doesn’t have to sit a year and often times can be there for spring ball. Or they can grab someone that lit it up at a mid major or FCS and wants to try P5.

        Net result is that 247 has a short list of top JUCO RB’s and none of these kids had P5 offers except our guy. We may have gotten a steal here because others didn’t bother taking a look.

        https://247sports.com/Season/2022-Football/CompositeRecruitRankings/?InstitutionGroup=JuniorCollege&Position=RB

      4. Yep, as I replied just now to someone else, you take him all day long. But to your point, maybe people are steering clear of JUCO RBs due to wear and tear. But if you look at Bama’s RB this year, I think that was a fifth year guy running scout team for them early because he was behind a bunch of other studs. He had wear on him but ended up being great.

        I like this get. Give yourself options.

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