Husker football practice, 3/16

Nebraska running back Mikale Wilbon takes the handoff from quarterback Patrick O'Brien during spring practice Thursday at Hawks Championship Center.

Mikale Wilbon has had a quiet playing career at Nebraska — far too quiet, considering his ability.

His coaches still think a breakthrough season is possible.

A 5-foot-9, 200-pound junior, Wilbon recalls a conversation with Husker running backs coach Reggie Davis shortly before the start of spring practice earlier this month.

"He told me right off the jump, 'You're going to have a bigger role. You're going to get a lot of reps,'" Wilbon told reporters following Thursday's practice.

Wilbon appreciated those words.

"Now, I just have to turn it up a lot," he said.

Ranked by Rivals.com as one of the nation's top 175 prospects coming out of De La Salle Institute in Chicago, Wilbon in 2014 earned scout-team MVP at Nebraska. In the following two seasons, though, he put up modest numbers: 24 rushes for 124 yards (5.16 per carry) and six receptions for 62 yards.

He's still looking for his first touchdown.

He said a lack of focus has slowed him in the past. For instance, he said, he would dwell too long on mistakes, leading to inconsistency.

But he has more focus this year, he said, while also feeling more relaxed.

"Sometimes I just think too much and just try to do too much," he said.

He seems in an excellent position to make a move on the depth chart. Through the first six practices (out of 15 total), there seems to be close competition involving Wilbon, sophomore Tre Bryant (43 carries for 172 yards last season) and junior Devine Ozigbo (97-412).

Bryant and Wilbon are fleet and shifty, while the 6-foot, 230-pound Ozigbo brings more power to the discussion.

Wilbon appreciates the encouragement he receives from Davis.

"I had dropped the ball (on a pass play) a couple practices ago, and he was like, 'C'mon, man, you can make that catch,'" Wilbon said. "The coaches have confidence in me making plays. I just have to have confidence in myself, and I just have to stay focused."

He flashes back to November, when he dropped a screen pass against Maryland.

"Man, it was on my mind for a few months," Wilbon said.

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Yes, months. That's far too long to dwell on a relatively mundane mistake. So, Davis implores Wilbon to let go of bad plays and reminds him that nobody's perfect.

Why did dropping a screen pass bother Wilbon so much?

"Because that's not me. I don't do things like that," he said. "My mom (Kelly Wilbon) calls me a perfectionist, and I really try to be one … I try to do everything to a T, and just how coaches ask me to do it."

The fact he hasn't always reacted well to imperfection probably helps explain his lack of playing time to this point of his college career.

This spring, however, "I'm just out there playing like I'm 7 years old again."

Translation: He's playing with a clearer mind, and letting his elite athleticism show more often.

You can see it when he darts through small creases and speeds into the second and third levels of the defense.

You can see it when he hauls in short passes and bolts upfield.

He could benefit greatly from Nebraska's emphasis on check-down passes to the running backs.

"If the quarterbacks see us and they check it down, I could see a lot of backs catching the ball and getting a lot of yards. … Some defenses don't even account for the running back sometimes," he said. "That's a big weapon for us."

Wilbon notes that he lined up as a slot receiver at times at De La Salle, where he was limited by injuries to a total of 10 games in his junior and senior seasons, yet still rushed for 2,100 yards.

But he's still awaiting that big breakthrough at Nebraska.

Granted, he did find some rhythm last September at Northwestern, rushing six times for 55 yards, including a 32-yard run.

"When they gave me the ball a second time, I was like, 'Hold on, they're giving me the ball two times? In a game?'" Wilbon said with a smile.

His mom has encouraged him to be patient. He has a strong supporting cast.

"They just tell me my time will come," he said. "It was definitely tough here to start out with. But you've got to keep working to get better every day. That's what I keep doing."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


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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