The biggest question about Nebraska’s running back depth in 2014 isn't whether the Huskers have it.
Rather, it’s how, and how often, coaches plan on utilizing Imani Cross and Terrell Newby.
While Saturday’s season opener against Florida Atlantic could offer some clues, it may not necessarily provide a definitive answer.
That’s based on last season, when 72 percent of Cross’ carries and 92 percent of Newby’s carries came in Nebraska’s first six games.
The show belonged to Ameer Abdullah over the final half of the season.
Abdullah, aiming to become the first player in Nebraska history to post three 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and who's only 23 yards shy of 3,000 career rushing yards, figures to get the brunt of the workload this season, too.
But his top two backups both say they’re improved, poised and ready to do everything required of a running back in Tim Beck’s offense.
“Like I said, we have no problem playing all those guys,” said Beck, the Nebraska offensive coordinator.
Newby, a 5-foot-10, 197-pound sophomore, said he’s glad he played as a true freshman, even though he carried only four times over the Huskers’ final six games, with never more than one carry in a game during that stretch.
The playing experience, Newby said, has him feeling more confident, calm and comfortable entering this season.
He said he’s healthy, too, having missed roughly a week of fall camp after sustaining what Newby said was a head injury.
“I think I've really improved on the mental part of the game,” said Newby, who rushed 54 times for 298 yards last season, including 15 carries for 76 yards in the Huskers’ season opener against Wyoming.
“Reading defenses and everything, it’s really become like second nature to me. It’s something that I really didn't have last year, like picking up pass protections and just seeing different things. I see it a lot quicker now. I think I’m a lot more patient in my running this year, too.”
An offseason in the weight room has also helped. Newby said he made “some pretty significant gains” throughout the winter and summer, which has helped him when running between the tackles.
“I honestly think the between-the-tackle plays have been great throughout fall camp,” Newby said. “I feel great about running between the tackles. I actually like more inside zone than outside right now.”
Beck concurs, saying Newby is a better inside runner than he was when he arrived as a true freshman.
“I think Terrell just understands things better,” Beck said. “He’s a sophomore now, he’s running harder. He’s just got a better feel for it.
“Same for Imani. I just think Imani knows what he is and just does a great job for us in there — good leader, tough, physical, hard runner. He can do everything we ask him to do. He can block, he can catch.”
The 6-1, 230-pound Cross rushed 85 times for 447 yards as a sophomore last season, with 61 of those carries in the season’s first half. He scored a team-best 10 touchdowns, and has 17 for his career, mostly a by-product of his short-yardage role.
It’s a label Cross would like to shed — he sees himself as a viable every-down runner — but one he knows will exist until he can prove otherwise.
“I don’t know if I've proved enough,” Cross said. “I think I’m working toward that, and I think there’ll be opportunities there, and I’ll have to take advantage of my opportunities when they’re presented to me.”
Cross, who's played in every game since his true freshman season, said he's more mature with the offense, too.
“It's just understanding why we’re doing things, not just doing them,” Cross said. “It’s easy to just run a play, but focusing on why we’re running that play and how to execute that better, I think I’m a little more mature.”
More maturity and more experience — from both Cross and Newby — should help the backup running backs achieve their ultimate goal.
Which is …?
“Move chains,” Cross said. “That’s the most important thing. Move chains and pass protect and make sure we’re valuable in the passing game, being a check-down. Those three things are important.
“If we execute right and we’re focused, I think we can do some good things.”