Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held has a message this spring for anybody in his group who thinks he has a leg up in the race for the starting job.
"We're at ground zero in the sense we haven't played a game yet, so you're going to have to show me what you can do, all right?" said Held, voice rising. "The starting running back that marches out to the field for the University of Nebraska against South Alabama, I have no idea who that's going to be. It's going to be done by the guy who's consistent in practice and knows what he's doing.
"That's exciting. When you have a room full of running backs that's very competitive, that's what you want. That way, a guy doesn't feel like, 'I've got this deal made, I don't have to worry about the guys behind me.'"
A logical pick as the favorite in the race to start the Aug. 31 opener is sophomore speedster Maurice Washington, the team's leading returning rusher among running backs. He carried 77 times for 455 yards last season (5.9 per carry) while catching 24 passes for 221 yards (9.2). He scored four touchdowns, three via the run.
However, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost has said Washington will be a "limited participant" in spring practice as the player deals with an ongoing legal matter in California. He's already missed at least one practice, March 11, to return to California. Meanwhile, sophomore Jaylin Bradley and senior walk-on Wyatt Mazour will try to take full advantage of every repetition with the top units when practice resumes Monday after spring break.
Another walk-on, Brody Belt, a redshirt freshman from Millard West, impressed in the early stages of spring drills, Held said.
This summer, an injection of talent will arrive with incoming freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins as well as junior college transfer Dedrick Mills — as long as Mills completes academic work at Garden City (Kansas) Community College.
In other words, Nebraska's running back situation is fluid. Very fluid. But Held is confident. Very confident.
"My standard doesn't change," he said. "When Rahmir Johnson gets here, when Ronald Thompkins gets here, when Dedrick Mills gets here, I'm going to hold them to the same standard and I expect us to have a better — a way better — year than we did last year even though Devine (Ozigbo) had a really good senior year. I expect us to be lights-out in the fall."
Redshirt freshman Miles Jones and incoming freshman Wan'Dale Robinson — both on hand this spring — also can help Nebraska's backfield on those plays when they shift over from receiver.
"The good thing about this offense is if you look historically with Coach Frost at Oregon and what we had at UCF, young guys can come in and be able to play early," Held said. "We can manipulate the system a little bit to make it work for players."
The key is putting players in roles they can handle. It's about putting players in mismatches. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Washington is shifty runner who can go in motion out of the backfield and create headaches for defenses as a sure-handed receiver. The prevailing wisdom is Washington and Mills, a 5-11, 227-pound power back, could create a dynamic one-two punch much like Washington and Ozigbo did last season.
The 6-foot, 225-pound Ozigbo rushed for 1,082 yards (7.0 per carry) and scored 12 touchdowns. That's a lot of lost production. But keep in mind, Mills thumped his way to 85.7 yards per game in 2016 as a freshman at Georgia Tech.
"He's a guy who brings the physical element. He can help us in short yardage," Held said. "He obviously can run and he loves football. It means something to him."
Held noted that Mills has evolved as a running back since his days at Georgia Tech.
"He was 240 pounds then," Held said. "He's not going to be a 240-pound back, I don't think, for us. Like I told Devine, you can't be a 240-pound running back in this offense. We're not an I-formation, downhill team. You have to be able to do a lot of different things. Devine took that to heart, and look how successful he was."
Mills will have to come to campus ready to compete. That much is certain. Same goes for anybody who has designs on the starting job.
"The guys we want to recruit are the guys who don't care about who's on campus," Held said. "Their mindset is, 'I'm going to go in and beat anybody out, I don't care who they have.' We don't want guys who look at the numbers and think, 'I'm never going to play there.'
"If that's the case, I'm not recruiting the right guy."