If you set out to explain where Nebraska’s running back depth chart currently stands and what the Huskers would like to see down the stretch, you couldn’t come up with a better situation to paint the picture than what unfolded in the second half against Minnesota on Oct. 16.
Trailing 21-16 at the time, starter Rahmir Johnson had to exit the game after a second-down run inside the Gophers’ 5-yard line because of a head injury. Quarterback Adrian Martinez was stopped right at the goal line on third down and freshman running back Jaquez Yant tripped on fourth-and-inches, and Nebraska turned the ball over on downs.
It was a big moment and a big letdown for Nebraska in an eventual 30-23 loss.
The moral of the story isn’t that the Huskers have nothing behind Johnson, but rather that it’s been a tough task to find an option that Nebraska can really, truly count on in an inexperienced group behind the emerging lead back.
Yant, sophomore Markese Stepp and freshman Sevion Morrison have all shown flashes, but none has been able to really sew up a job in the rotation.
“I’ve got to continue to get Yant, Sevion, Stepp and those guys consistent to where we have a No. 2 and a No. 3 guy that can go out there and really be able to help us down the stretch run and into the future,” running backs coach Ryan Held said Tuesday.
Yant has been the second man in the past three games. He started off with a bang against overmatched Northwestern, rumbling for 127 yards on 13 carries.
Since then, he’s carried 10 times for 38 yards and had a couple of miscues, including the fourth-down attempt against Minnesota and a second-down play on which he went the wrong way and ran into Martinez against Michigan, which got him benched.
“I think you come out against Northwestern and everything’s great and everybody’s patting you on the back and how good you are, and then you kind of get brought back down to Earth a little bit,” Held said of Yant. “I think with a young football player like that that has a lot of talent, you’re going to go through some of those swings. I think at the end of the day, until you go through those swings and experience the highs and the lows, you don’t know how to react.
“He’s been able to see the good, he’s seen inconsistencies. He’s obviously a talented player and he’s got a bright future here.”
Stepp rushed 18 times for 101 yards against FCS Fordham in September and then got nine carries for 17 against Buffalo. Since then? Only six carries, five of which came late in the blowout over Northwestern. He hasn’t had a carry in either of NU’s past two games.
Coach Scott Frost wondered aloud a couple of weeks ago if Stepp was fully healthy after offseason toe surgery, but Held had another explanation.
“Just consistency in practice and the other guys have done a really good job,” Held said. “It’s not necessarily (Stepp)’s done, they’ve just have done some things a little bit better at times. But he’s really been a great teammate, he comes to work every day, and I appreciate that. I know that he wants to play a lot and he’s going to continue to keep getting better and we’re coaching the heck out of him to continue to get better.”
Morrison has carried 30 times total this year for 116 yards and three touchdowns. He’s a dynamic athlete, but surprisingly has just three catches for 13 yards and has struggled to make the horizontal passing game — designed to get players like him the ball in space — work. He’s dropped a few catchable balls this year, including one against the Gophers.
“He’s there. He’s got to catch the ball. Period. He knows it. Everybody in the stadium knows it. I know it and he’s got to be able to make that play,” Held said, adding that Morrison has to more consistently make the play even if a defender is in his face. “It’s just a matter of focus and every play matters. You can’t be a little lackadaisical. That’s with young players, they have to understand that, when you go out there, the game is on the line on that play. That play matters.”
The Nebraska running backs coach praised the extra work his young backs are doing and said he has confidence in what the long-range trajectory looks like. Of course, the Huskers need one or more of them to step up more immediately and provide consistent, if not game-breaking, relief for Johnson over the course of a critical closing four-game stretch.
“They know what’s at stake,” Held said. “This is a huge game against Purdue. Purdue’s played well. We get to play at home three of our next four at home, but they understand that we’re close and we’ve got to be able to finish games. We just have to continue to put our guys in competitive situations and those plays that matter so when it comes in the game, that we’re able to get over the top.”