Ron Brown

Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown (left) talks with fullback C.J. Zimmerer (31) and Ameer Abdullah (8) during the Nebraska football team's practice Aug. 8, 2012, at Hawks Championship Center.

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah seemed slightly annoyed.

Asked if he had to adjust his game to the size and physical nature of the Big Ten, Abdullah stared at the reporter as if to say, "My game's just fine, thank you."

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," the 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore said. "That's how I approach my game."

Probably a good approach for battling in the brutish Big Ten.

Ron Brown would have it no other way.

After Tuesday's practice, the Nebraska running backs coach spoke of exactly what he desires in a stable of tailbacks. He wants a big runner "who can hit it up in there" against ornery front fours and packed-in defenses. He also wants a speedy runner who can turn the corner on the outside, a la Abdullah and Braylon Heard. 

"Then you want do-it-all guys like Rex (Burkhead)," Brown said.

Yeah, never hurts to have an All-Big Ten player.

In summary, Brown's wish list: Big backs. Fast backs. Do-it-all backs.

Brown's world seems to be getting pretty close to perfect.

The 5-11, 185-pound Heard and Abdullah supply breakaway speed. Burkhead, a 5-11, 210-pound senior, supplies pretty much everything, though he will look for more long runs this season.

Nebraska could benefit greatly from a dimension it lacked a year ago: The big back. The power back. Think Dan Alexander (6-0, 245). Or Dahrran Diedrick (6-0, 225). Or even Lawrence Phillips (6-0, 215) late in his Husker career.   

Husker head coach Bo Pelini on Tuesday mentioned Imani Cross, a 6-1, 225-pound true freshman, among newcomers who could play this season. 

Cross represents a shift in Nebraska's recruiting philosophy at running back, necessitated by the school's move last season to the Big Ten, which possesses more brute strength and fewer open spaces than what the Huskers encountered in the Big 12.

"One thing we had to do was understand we're going against the largest people on the planet Earth," Brown said.

Cross is a physical specimen, Brown said. The rookie recently reeled off an astonishing 41 chinups. Brown said Cross' strength is "unbelievable."

Thing is, we've all seen prototypical big backs who weren't particularly physical. Cross, though, has proven to be a physical runner in scrimmages, Brown said.

"He can be a beast," the coach said. "I like his mentality. I love his mental toughness. He's studying all the time. I think he's the right kind of person.

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"He's got his own unique style. He's got a little wiggle to him."

We've all seen young backs become overwhelmed with all they must learn. Nebraska asks a lot from its running backs. Run inside. Run outside. Pick up blitzes to protect the quarterback. Catch passes. Know when to go in motion. A litany of duties.

We're about to find out if Cross can handle the load.

I'm guessing we'll see plenty of the former Georgia prep standout.

After all, "A big back, without a doubt, is something almost every team in the Big Ten Conference has," Brown said.

"The physicality. The forcing of plays inside. The punishment a back absorbs. ... The big back isn't just a guy who can plow and get extra yards, it's a durable back as well.

"It's the guy who can take a licking and keep on ticking, you know what I mean?"

Let's be clear: Abdullah and Heard still can have prominent places in Tim Beck's offense. They'll be needed, rest assured.

They've become better inside runners, Brown said. Especially Abdullah.

"He's got great leg drive, great power for a small guy," Brown said. "And he has good vision -- he sees things inside well. Just because you're a small back doesn't mean you can't be an outstanding inside runner."

Brown mentions Barry Sanders as an example.

Brown doesn't consider Burkhead a "big back," yet Burkhead is an excellent inside runner.

As for Heard's ability to run between the tackles, "Braylon is getting better," Brown said. "He's made a lot of progress from a year ago. He's running much more physically.

"Ameer has power along with that speed and quickness."

I like Abdullah's hard edge. He feels he can be a change-of-pace back. He can inject a heavy dose of speed and instant energy. Same goes for Heard, also a sophomore.

"I tell our guys they have to be physically and mentally the toughest guys on the field," Brown said. "We're not taking a back seat to anybody."

Not in Brown's world.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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