The Nebraska running game has gone from sure thing to question mark, and that’s the kind of thing that happens when you lose a running back the caliber of Ameer Abdullah.
Abdullah — even with an injury that limited him at times — was one of the best running backs in the country last season. He was the definition of dependability, carrying the ball 264 times for 1,611 yards and 19 touchdowns. He added 269 receiving yards and a trio of touchdown catches, as well. While he didn’t have the seasons that conferencemates Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman did — each posted one of the 20 best rushing seasons in college football history, with Gordon’s being the second best all-time — Abdullah still finished the season a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and proved himself one of the most valuable players in college football.
Abdullah, though, has moved on, now toting the ball for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, and it means the Nebraska running game has to find a way to keep going without Mr. Reliability.
The Huskers’ answer at No. 1 running back seems to be Terrell Newby, who alongside Imani Cross backed up Abdullah in each of the past two seasons. Newby rushed for 297 yards and hit the end zone five times last season, going for 298 yards his freshman season in 2013.
While past years’ experience have served Newby well, he said he’s learned a ton this offseason, aided by the arrival of Reggie Davis as the Huskers’ running backs coach. Davis spent the past four seasons as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers under new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.
“I feel like being consistent in the spring helped me do that, coming out as the top guy, frontrunner right now,” Newby said earlier this month during the team’s media day. “Coach Davis kind of indicated that I’ve been making good strides and I had a pretty good spring, and I got some good remarks from coach (Mike) Riley after spring also.
“I think (Davis has) been big part to my progression throughout the spring. Since he’s come here, I’ve learned a lot of different terminology, with him coming from the next level. Just seeing things on a whole different level, especially identifying different defenses, offensive terms. It’s been a pretty good learning experience since he’s been here.”
Of course Newby’s best teacher might be Abdullah, and who wouldn’t want to learn from a guy who earned All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons?
“Offensive IQ and hard work,” Newby said when asked what he learned from Abdullah. “Ameer really showed it every single day coming out to practice. Hard work and effort were a big thing. He still kind of drills it into my head through motivational texts and stuff like that. He’s just been a real good influence to me and all the other backs in the room.”
While Newby is the likely recipient of the No. 1 job, he certainly won’t be the only back getting carries for the Huskers. Cross is a senior with 39 games played in his Nebraska career. But a pair of freshmen — redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon (a Chicago native and De La Salle product) and true freshman Devine Ozigbo — could get in on the action, too.
Riley has had running success before, coaching 1,000-yard rushers Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Yvenson Bernard at Oregon State. But is there a player capable of having one of those kinds of seasons on the current Nebraska roster?
It’s all kind of up in the air at the moment, and we’ll have to wait and see how this group of running backs does in taking over for one of the country’s best in Abdullah. Thankfully, there’s an experienced quarterback in place in Tommy Armstrong, who does a lot of running himself in addition to his work through the air, which should aid Nebraska’s ground attack.
Abdullah’s shoes are huge ones to fill. The Huskers have a monumental task in trying to do just that.