Rex Burkhead’s second carry of the season was such a tease.
He nearly fumbled the handoff but secured the football and found a hole after a great kickout block from guard Spencer Long. Burkhead made a quick cut and raced 57 yards down the sideline for a touchdown against Southern Miss, the 2012 season not two minutes old.
Goodbye defenders, hello Husker Heisman Trophy No. 4.
But Burkhead’s senior season wasn’t going to be that easy, not by a long shot.
He’s coming back from his second knee injury of the season. He wears a cumbersome brace that he hates but realizes is necessary. The Heisman hopeful — notoriously conservative Nebraska athletic department brass actually approved a Burkhead website in the preseason — is now just hoping to help his team recover from a big loss at Ohio State.
“We have to stay optimistic,” Burkhead said. “We’ve got to move on. We still have everything we want to accomplish out there to get to the Big Ten Championship.”
Burkhead strained the MCL in his left knee in the opener, then sat out against UCLA and Arkansas State. He ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries against Idaho State. He carried 18 times for 86 yards against Wisconsin, including one of his patented stiff-arm, carry-a-defender-15-yard runs in the second half.
Against Ohio State, Burkhead had a 73-yard run in the first quarter and finished with 119 yards on 14 carries. But he re-injured his knee on his first carry of the third quarter and missed the rest of the game. He’s expected to be at full strength Saturday against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.
Burkhead's Heisman candidacy? That’s probably not going to recover. Winning a Heisman takes a combination of a good setup year (check), a high national ranking and headline performances against big-time opponents. The confluence of the latter two, with Nebraska 4-2 and unranked, isn't likely.
Burkhead would never say winning the Heisman was his goal anyway. He’s taking a positive approach to what's left of his final season.
“You have to still have fun with it,” Burkhead said. “You’re still playing the game of football. It’s my senior year and it’s better to stay positive about it than to get all down about it. At least I’m out there. It could be worse. It definitely could be worse. Just being out there running around is always nice.”
His coaches say Burkhead has faced adversity with increased resolve.
“I really feel for the guy,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He’s a senior and going out there and really having such high expectations but having some setbacks, that’s tough. Rex is such a tough individual, he just keeps working and he knows he’s going to get an opportunity. I really appreciate what he does. He’s a great example.”
Ameer Abdullah has stepped into the I-back role in Burkhead’s absence and performed well. Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown called Abdullah “one of the more dangerous players in the country” and said he sees some Burkhead-like qualities in the sophomore.
“Rex is a great all-around football player,” Brown said. “When he came here as a freshman, we could see he had the skills to do all we needed him to do. Ameer has become that kind of player.”
As for personal goals such as yards, touchdowns and Heismans, Brown said that can’t be the focus for any Husker player.
“We talk to them about technique and fundamentals and let the numbers and stats take care of themselves,” Brown said. “Perfection doesn’t come from stats, it comes from quality of reps.”
Asked to describe his running style -- not what others say about him, but how he himself sees it -- Burkhead thought a moment, then said, “I’m versatile, I guess. I can do a bunch of different things, like catch the ball out of the backfield, I’m a physical runner and I can make people miss.”
That’s as much as you can get Burkhead to brag about himself, but he is as versatile a back as there is in college football. As a runner, he darts and dashes with power. He’s lined up at quarterback, throwing big lead blocks for two Abdullah touchdown runs against Ohio State. He’s a threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
Three times this season Burkhead has broken his career best for longest run from scrimmage, but he lives off the yards he gains to move the chains.
With the injuries, those opportunities haven’t come as often as fans, coaches or Burkhead expected.
“That’s the life of the I-back,” Brown said. “Rex has handled it very well. If it was all about Rex, yeah, he’d be walking around here pouting, but it ain’t all about Rex and he knows he’s part of a much bigger deal."