Nebraska coaches began the football season hoping senior running back Rex Burkhead would be sidelined by injury for four games in conference play, thereby allowing a couple of green sophomores and a true freshman to carry the football and gain experience, all the while planning on Burkhead’s triumphant return and fresh legs for the regular-season finale and into the postseason.
Relax and take a deep breath — if not because of the length of that sentence, then because of its silliness.
Of course that’s not what anyone had scripted, or wanted to script.
Nobody’s arguing, though, with how this drama has unfolded.
Nebraska is 10-2, having won five of six games in which Burkhead didn't play. Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross have done an admirable job in Burkhead's absence. Question marks at running back won't be so bold when Burkhead is gone for good next season.
And Burkhead, meanwhile, says he's near 100 percent health as he returns to the starting lineup for Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin.
That’s not just his knee he’s talking about, either.
Because Burkhead was out for a month with a sprained knee ligament, his body didn’t endure the pounding he normally would’ve taken. That’s a significant advantage as Nebraska enters its 13th game in 14 weeks.
“Last year at this time, he was pretty banged up,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “I think that’s a big help for him, which will, in turn, be a big help for us.”
What’s more, Burkhead also stayed in the game mentally during his absence, making his second-half return Friday at Iowa that much more seamless.
“To me, it isn’t so much your body leaving the game, it’s if your heart and your mind and your soul have left the game,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “A lot of injured guys allow that to happen. They allow themselves to drift a little bit, and the process of coming back is much more difficult and it takes much more of a transition.
“For Rex, there was no warming up in the bullpen or anything. He was mentally ready, and he conducted himself well.”
Burkhead carried 16 times for 69 yards and a touchdown in the second half of Nebraska’s 13-7 victory at Iowa. He displayed his quickness, tenacity and power, even though coaches didn’t open the playbook up very much for him.
That, of course, could change against Wisconsin or in Nebraska’s bowl game, given that Burkhead has emerged from game action with no soreness or swelling in his knee.
“He’s a versatile guy as we all know, and his leg came out of it real well,” Brown said. “I don’t feel like there’s any hesitation using Rex in a variety of capacities.”
Burkhead initially sprained his MCL in Nebraska’s season opener, and then missed two straight games before returning. He carried 18 times for 86 yards in Nebraska’s 30-27 victory over Wisconsin on Sept. 29, but left each of the Huskers’ next two games — against Ohio State and Northwestern — after re-injuring his knee.
Burkhead decided to rest his knee until he felt completely healthy. He said he was aiming for his return to come in the Big Ten championship, but that he was ready if needed against Iowa.
And he was.
“It was a dramatic way to end the regular season,” Brown said. “I really feel we needed Rex to be who he was at that moment.
“That was the Rex factor, right there. Our football team needed that at that time, and he delivered the goods.”