Southern Mississippi vs. Nebraska, 9.1.12

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (8) attempts to gain yardage despite the grasp of Southern Mississippi's Jamie Collins in the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, at Memorial Stadium.

FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star

Ameer Abdullah is a bit confounded why the question keeps coming up.

Whenever reporters gather around the Husker running back, someone always seems to ask it.

"People ask me, 'How’s the transition from running outside to inside?' I'm like, 'I never did run outside,’” Abdullah said. “I love running inside. I feel that’s where you get most of your yards. You run outside, you might be getting width, but you’re not getting north.”

Of course, when people ask the question there is a certain insinuation attached to it, a maybe not-so-subtle suggestion that a 5-foot-9, 185-pound back might not be able to churn out yards between the tackles the way a bigger guy might.

Abdullah isn’t interested in that conversation. Not in the slightest.

“It’s funny, because until I got here, I didn’t realize I was that small,” he said.

Something he’s quite sure about: It’s how big you play. Not how big you're listed in the program.

“It’s just so little to me,” the sophomore said of the size discussion. “It’s like, man, as long as you have the will to take the guy and move him back, and win that battle, hey, it doesn’t matter what size you are.”

Abdullah played big Saturday, having as significant a role in the Husker offense as anyone not named Taylor Martinez.

With Rex Burkhead sidelined early by a knee injury, Abdullah saw more action than he might have otherwise. He carried the ball 15 times for 81 yards and caught four passes for 39 yards, including a nifty 11-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter of the 49-20 win against Southern Miss.

That doesn’t even factor in his work as a return man, where he had three punt returns for 41 yards.

But step away from the numbers.

Put your attention on that blitzing linebacker or safety coming in trying to blow up Martinez.

Running backs coach Ron Brown counted two or three times Saturday when Abdullah stepped in and went toe-to-toe with that blitzer, giving Martinez time to pass.

“He is one tough guy now,” Brown said. “He can pass protect.”

There’s good reason for that.

“All my life my dad has always told me ‘If you can’t protect, you won’t play,’” Abdullah said. “If we give Taylor the time, you see what can happen. He can pick people apart.”

When it comes to standing in there on pass protection, it’s all about pad level, the running back tells you.

“The low man wins. It doesn’t matter if he’s bigger than you. If you’re lower you’re going to win that battle.”

Abdullah’s development into that type of complete player leaves Husker coaches feeling confident, even with Burkhead listed as “questionable” for this week's game at UCLA as he tries to recover from what has been said to be a low-grade MCL sprain.

When Burkhead went down, Abdullah said he simply told himself it was time to step up.

Just go play ball.

“The clock doesn’t stop just because Rex goes down,” Abdullah said. “We have to keep playing.”

Burkhead or no Burkhead, Husker coach Bo Pelini said his staff likes its backup running backs: Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross.

All can help, but Abdullah stands at the front of that trio.

“He was more of a specialty guy last year, and we'd give him special situations and bring him into the offense a little bit slower and use his talents in certain ways,” Pelini said. “Now he's shown he can be an every-down back.”

Brown maybe gives him the best compliment, calling him a terrific all-around football player.

“One of the most dangerous guys that you can imagine having,” Brown said. “So I see where he’s come in terms of his leadership. He and Rex have a lot of similarities.”

The flattery is nice.

But Abdullah remains his toughest critic.

In reflecting on the season opener, he sees plenty of flaws in his game that need corrected.

“I still feel like the effort on Saturday could be much better,” Abdullah said. “I feel like a lot of times on Saturday I caught myself on plays I wasn’t getting the ball, not hustling. That’s not the kind of player I want to be.

"I want to be the guy you see busting his butt down the field every play.”

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

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