The brace on his left knee takes some getting used to, but better to wear a brace and practice than not practice at all, Rex Burkhead believes.

“The linemen are joking with me, saying I’m one of them now,”  Nebraska’s senior running back said Monday.

Hey, Burkhead will take on a few jokes if it means returning to the field.

And there he was Monday, practicing for the first time since suffering what he said was a Grade 2 sprained medial collateral ligament in the season opener against Southern Miss.

“I was down when it happened, but I was able to bounce back quick and say, 'OK, this is what I need to do to get my body right,’” Burkhead said.

Since the injury, Burkhead has spent plenty of hours in the pool, on a treadmill, on a bike, wherever and whatever it took to get his body ready to play.

He passed the first test to get back on the field. Now the next test is to be the force he expects to be.

“When you get out on the football field it’s a lot different than it is running straight ahead or being on a bike or something like that,” Burkhead said. “You've just got to push yourself to the limit and trust in the trainers that they’re going to have you right.”

And then there’s the mental part.

Most any football player who’s suffered a leg injury will tell you that is as big a hurdle as the physical part.

“A lot of it is the fear factor you just have to get over,” Burkhead said.

But Husker coaches feel confident they've used the right amount of caution before bringing Burkhead back.

Husker coach Bo Pelini said Burkhead probably could have played against Arkansas State last Saturday.

"But I really like how we've handled it. I've leaned on the trainers, the doctors, and I think he's ready to play, he's anxious," Pelini said. "He’s been nipping at us to put him in there. And now it's the right time. I think he'll be a heckuva lot more ready this Saturday than he was this last Saturday, and I think he'll be pretty much 100 percent.”

At this point, no hints are being offered on how carries might be divided in Saturday’s game against Idaho State.

Ameer Abdullah, in particular, has shined in Burkhead’s absence. The sophomore rushed 30 times for 167 yards in the 42-13 win against Arkansas State.

Then there’s Braylon Heard and true freshman Imani Cross, who have performed well in limited roles this season.

They’ll still get their chances, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.

“Our game plan's not in and just because Rex is back doesn't mean we're going to push those guys to the wayside,” he said.

Having four backs to carry the football is a good problem to have,  running backs coach Ron Brown says.

“I’ve talked to them about being we-backs, not me-backs,” Brown said. “And they know. This is a good group of backs. This is what you want in a program that runs the football.

"We’re going to run the football well. And you want four really dynamite backs in your backfield. And you divvy it out. They have to compete with each other every single day in practice. They’re good friends, they love each other. But part of that love is battling each other for their spots on the field.”

Coaches were not letting whether they'd ease Burkhead back into game form and limit his carries this week.

But Beck said Burkhead wasn’t held back at all in his return to the practice field Monday.

He’s an important weapon to get back with conference play less than two weeks away.

An all-conference back last season, Burkhead was considered a possible Heisman Trophy candidate before the season began, with the athletic department setting up a website for him.

Long a fan favorite, he's also widely respected by his teammates.

That might explain why Beck sensed Burkhead's fellow running backs were excited to have the senior return, even though it surely means fewer carries for them.

“He means a lot to our team,” Beck said. “He’s not just another tailback."

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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