When running back Ameer Abdullah has a game like he did a few weeks ago against Illinois — 225 yards on just 20 carries — the temptation is to keep riding him like a prize bull.
Can’t do it, Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown said.
“One thing I've been learning as a running backs coach in the three years I've been doing it is there’s attrition, particularly in this conference,” Brown said. “The Big Ten is arguably the best run defense conference in America. It’s very physical. I saw what 30-plus carries did to Rex (Burkhead). Ameer, three or four times in his career, he’s carried more than 30 times. There’s times when a guy is hot and you’re tempted to keep him in there, but you want to try and get other guys in to take some hits off him and keep him fresh, because it’s a long season.”
Abdullah is quietly having a spectacular junior year. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of the Husker's six games this season (he had 98 yards against UCLA). He’s second in the Big Ten with an average of 139 yards a game, and he’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry, more than 2 yards better than last season. He’s on pace for 1,600 yards.
Even though turf toe has taken quarterback Taylor Martinez out of the equation since mid-September, Abdullah, sophomore Imani Cross and freshman Terrell Newby have shared the load well enough that Brown is comfortable with the rotation heading into the next six Big Ten games.
"Ameer is averaging between 19-20 carries a game, Imani 10-11 carries a game and Terrell nine carries a game," Brown said. "We’re getting 100-plus yards out of Ameer every game and we’re getting 100-plus yards with the combination of Imani and Terrell every game. Last year we got 200 yards between Taylor and Ameer. We’re getting 200 yards from three people this year.”
Last season through Nebraska’s six-game Big Ten winning streak, Abdullah averaged 92.8 yards on 21 carries. Abdullah finished with 226 carries — or 34 percent — of the team's total load in 2012. This season he’s averaging 139 yards on 19 carries. Those 114 carries equal 37 percent of the total load. But those carries have come in an eight-week stretch because of the bye weeks, keeping Abdullah fresh for the final stretch run.
“The coaches are usually pretty steady with the way they use us,” Abdullah said. “If they’re putting in Imani or Terrell, there’s a reason. We might have a short-yardage situation Imani is best-suited for or Terrell might be just right for a certain play.”
The distribution of the run game will change yet again when Martinez returns to the lineup.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Brown said. “Who gets the ball depends on the flow of the game. It’s really hard to predict. We don’t really go into a game saying this guy will get this number of carries. We don’t want Ameer with too few carries early on. We want him to get into a rhythm. We want to use the other guys to make sure we’re not wearing him out.”
Brown has a very clear picture of what kind of running back he recruits to the program, and it has less to do with yards and touchdowns and more to do with effort and desire.
"I want gym rats," he said. "I want workout freaks. I want guys who are in the weight room, guys who have a chance to be lifter of the year because I know one thing they've got, they have a huge work ethic. I don’t want a lazy streak in my room at all. The lazy people in my room will eventually want to leave.
"You get a guy like Ameer busting his tail all the time. Then you have Imani, CJ (Zimmerer), Jano (Andy Janovich), all those guys, they’re constantly working out. I'd rather have to back them off as a coach then to spur them on. If I have to spur on a guy, that usually spells trouble."
Abdullah said he wasn't intimidated by the prospect of hard work when he came to Nebraska in 2011.
"I'm the last out of nine kids, so I always had to work for what I had," he said. "I didn't come from much. What I wanted, I had to go get myself."
Abdullah plans to play it smart when it comes to surviving the next six games in relatively good health.
“You need to make sure to take advantage of your free time,” Abdullah said. “You need to get in the ice tub, get off your feet and make sure you’re relaxing. Our guys are mature. We know how to handle these situations. We’ll be fine.”