As we continue through the off-season, I’d like you to note something about the articles that have been written (and will be) about our running back tandem of Roy Helu and Quentin Castille. The articles will include a disclaimer pointing to the health of these two players, particularly Helu. For example, a couple days ago Steve Hanway at Big Red Network used the term "A healthy Helu" when talking about the stats Helu could rack up running the ball this season. On May 28th, Tim Griffin did a piece on which Big 12 position units had talent. In it, he included the Husker tandem, complete with disclaimer:
Nebraska's running backs: With unproven Zac Lee starting at quarterback, look for Shawn Watson to lean heavily on a pair of talented returning backs. Quentin Castille trimmed about 20 pounds to get into better shape and leading returning rusher Roy Helu Jr. boosted his weight by 24 pounds to become a more powerful rusher between the tackles. Together, it wouldn't be a stretch that the two backs could combine for 2,000 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns if both can stay healthy. (emphasis mine)
Even though the Big 12 was considered a ‘pass-happy’ conference last season there were plenty of running back injuries. Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray injured his hamstring in the Big 12 title game and missed the national title game. Colorado lost both Darrell Scott and Rodney "Speedy" Stewart. Missouri’s Derrick Washington was slowed by injuries. Texas Tech lost backup Aaron Crawford, who missed ten games due to a foot injury.
The Huskers weren’t immune, as last season Marlon Lucky was hampered by turf toe, which caused him to miss the Colorado game and be ineffective in the Gator Bowl. Helu was slowed by a shoulder injury early in the season, then missed most of the Gator Bowl due to a knee infection. On top of that, he suffered a hamstring injury in the spring and missed the Red White spring game.
All of this adds up to the fact there’s a good chance that both Helu and Castille won’t make it through the season in one piece. That the pair will regularly be hit by 300 pound-plus defensive linemen, so it doesn't take a great football mind to understnd why. Therefore, it's imperative that the Huskers find a third back to fit into the rotation. It's especially important considering Nebraska will need to count on a strong running game until Zac Lee becomes comfortable running the offense.
All three looked good in the spring game. In fact, walk-on sophomore Austin Jones looked pretty decent in last year's spring game, but that didn't translate into a single carry in 2008. Ward and Okafor may make a good combination, as Ward is more of a power back, while Okafor provides some slash, drive, and vision. Rex Burkhead is the wildcard coming into the season. A new Husker recruit, Burkhead has already proven he can be a complete back as he played running back, receiver, quarterback and defensive back in high school.
The schedule sets up well to provide some game day experience. Florida Atlantic has some decent talent on offense and in the defensive secondary, but they're replacing six of their front seven on defense, which means Nebraska should be able to run the ball effectively. Arkansas State will come to town with a decent defensive line, but one that is susceptible to being worn down as there isn't a lot of depth. This should provide the younger backs the opportunity to get some carries in a real football game.
Nebraska's goal for the 2009 season will be to win the Big 12 North. Finding a good third running back might very well be the key to accomplishing that goal.