Entering 2011 spring practice, the running back depth chart isn't difficult to determine:
#1 Rex Burkhead
#2 Rex Burkhead
#3 Rex Burkhead
Spring football won't be about finding Nebraska's top running back. It'll be about finding someone who's going to take some pressure off Rex Burkhead now that Roy Helu has moved on, and Dontrayevous Robinson transferred to Montana State.
It's not just the lack of depth that Husker fans ought to find disconcerting. It's the lack of an explosive, threat-to-score-on-every-play guy that's missing from the offense. Granted, Nebraska has some great potential coming in the fall, but it will take time for that potential to be realized.
Burkhead is a dependable back with an incredible amount of versatility. He's consistent at gaining yardage and capable of carrying the ball 25 times a game. Bottom line - he's productive, whether he's taking a handoff, catching a pass or executing the Wildcat where he's both run and thrown the ball.
Still, it should bother Husker fans that he's the only back on the roster with any level of experience. Senior walk-on Austin Jones got a few carries last season, scoring the only touchdown of his career against Western Kentucky in the opener. He's worked hard enough that he's ahead of juniors Lester Ward and Collins Okafor, two players who have all but disappeared from the Husker line up.
These backs shouldn't be written off as unimportant, however. While Burkhead has been dependable, he did miss five games in 2009 with a foot injury. If he were to be injured in 2010, Jones, Ward, or Okafor may be pressed into heavy service. All three are good-sized backs, but like Burkhead should not be counted on to have the speed to break long runs as did Roy Helu the past few seasons.
2010 Rushing Statistics
2010 Receiving Statistics
Braylon Heard, Aaron Green, Ameer Abdullah
The good news is the potential that arrives in the fall. Braylon Heard has finally made eligibility and will join the team in the fall as will Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah. All three are the opposite of the more veteran running backs mentioned above. All three are under 200 lbs (before the Nebraska training and conditioning program gets hold of them).
Aaron Green was one of the top running back recruits in the nation, while Abdullah could be considered one of those under the radar guys that Nebraska hopes can become the next great Husker running back.
The biggest question about the newcomers - how quickly can they develop?
The bad news is that the potential arrives the fall. Coaches aren't as good in the fall. They're under pressure to produce a depth chart. It's time to ready the team to play which leaves less time for real teaching and less time for allowing a newcomer to find where he's supposed to be going and what he's supposed to be doing.
During Tuesday's press conference, Bo Pelini again used the word "multiple" with regards to the offense, including a reference to "big sets". "Big sets" should be good news for the fullback's on Nebraska's roster because it means they'll continue to be employed.
Senior Tyler Legate returns after playing in 13 games last season, starting four. While Legate didn't have a rushing carry last season, he did have one reception for a touchdown against Oklahoma State. Expect him to get the starting role again in 2011, and expect to see more "big sets" as part of the offense.
Sophomore C.J. Zimmerer spent 2010 as second on the depth chart at fullback, while walk-on xx Jay Martin spent time on special teams. Junior walk-on Colin McDermott has moved to fullback after playing defensive end last season.
2010 vs 2011
Obviously Nebraska enters 2011 with some big problems at depth at this position. It will be important that Burkhead stays healthy and that the younger backs develop quickly, otherwise, as Pelini frequently says, "someone else will have to step up".
One more bit of news on the bright side - Tim Beck has stated that he'll simplify the offense meaning that the young talent should get on the field sooner rather than later.
I've seen a consistent theme amongst Husker fans who think that because we're joining the Big Ten that we'll be required to have a power running attack, or more "big sets". I have no idea why people might think that. It's not a requirement in the Big Ten - there's no law that says you're required to have a 50% plus run to pass ratio.
Forget the cold weather emphasis as well. It really doesn't snow that often during football season - if you remember last season, Minnesota's stadium had to be prepared to host the Minnesota Vikings- Chicago Bears in mid-December because it's not winterized for extreme cold and huge amounts of snow. That ought to tell you what a myth the cold weather factor is.
What Nebraska will need in 2011 is the same as its needs every season - an productive, efficient offense that scores more points than the defense allows. Whether it comes through the air or on the ground will matter not. What matters is - if the passing game fails, will there be enough depth behind Burkhead to mount a consistent rushing attack?