Greg Bell arrived on Nebraska’s campus in December with much acclaim.
The excitement apparently was warranted.
At least that’s the early word from Husker football coaches.
“Well, he can run, and he’s very smooth,” NU running backs coach Ryan Held said Thursday following the team’s third practice of the spring. “He’s got really good feet. So he can glide and make it look really easy. It’s very natural to him.”
Held’s comments came two days after first-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost offered unsolicited praise for Bell’s performance in practice.
Added Held, “He’s got really good hands. I think when he continues to get better, he can be a dude for us. I really believe that.”
The 6-foot, 200-pound Bell, the nation’s fourth-ranked junior college running back by 247Sports for the class of 2018, sparks interest among Nebraska fans because of the Huskers’ anemic rushing attack last season. They finished 120th nationally with a paltry average of 107.5 rushing yards per game.
Nebraska returns four scholarship running backs: Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon, Jaylin Bradley and Tre Bryant. But none of them cracked 500 rushing yards last season. Ozigbo led the way with 493 yards, averaging only 3.8 per carry. Bryant had 299 rushing yards through two games (5.9), but succumbed to a chronic knee injury, underwent offseason surgery and has yet to practice this spring.
Meanwhile, Bell last season rushed for 1,217 yards and 11 touchdowns at Arizona Western Community College.
“His nickname’s ‘The Eel' — he can get through small spaces, make you miss and take it the distance,” Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick said.
With two seasons of college eligibility remaining, the Eel didn’t slither into Lincoln with the intention of watching games. That said, Held isn’t going to hand him the job. Work remains.
“He’s got to tighten up on the details of the footwork (and work on) seeing the signal, knowing where to line up — not having to have someone help him do it early on,” Held said. “Once he knows what he’s doing, he’s very natural.
“I’m very excited about him, as I am the other running backs. They’ve all shown glimpses of being able to really do some stuff in this offense.”
Held wants to have multiple backs ready to play critical roles.
“We’re never going to be a program where one guy gets 60 plays and the rest get 10,” he said. “We’ll mix and match and find different roles. It comes down to production, obviously. When it’s all said and done, we’ll go with the hot hand and guys who are producing.”
Asked which backs have stepped up so far this spring, Held said, “I think the seniors, Devine and Wilbon, have done really well. They’ve trimmed their bodies up. It’s a different style of offense. But they’re able to do some different things. They run really good routes and they’ve got good hands.
“All my running backs have great hands. That’s one thing I didn’t know. We run really good routes — intermediate stuff. I mean, we’re not going to be getting deep balls all the time. But intermediate stuff, we’re pretty good.”
Held followed those comments with unsolicited praise for Bradley, a sophomore who “just keeps getting better and better,” the coach said. The 6-foot, 180-pound Bellevue West graduate last season rushed 24 times for 93 yards (3.9) while catching four passes for 38.
Wilbon rushed 88 times for 379 yards (4.3) in 2017 while leading the running back crew with 21 receptions for 80 yards. Ozigbo had 16 receptions for 123, and made an excellent twisting grab during Thursday’s practice, Held said.
However, the group combined for only nine runs of 20-plus yards in 2017, with a season-long of 35.
Held played at Nebraska during a period — the mid-1990s — when the Huskers often needed only a couple of Saturdays to rack up nine runs of 20-plus yards.
“I think it’s how you practice,” he said. “We’re working all the time on finishing (runs) — working to the next level, making the safety miss and bursting and working on running through the end zone and scoring touchdowns. It’s a mentality.
“Even if there’s no hole, you can’t just stop and run back to the huddle. You have to get through, fight through, work so it becomes a habit, becomes a mindset. So then those 4-yard runs that were happening last year become 25-yard runs because you’re used to, ‘You know what, I’m not going to be done even if it’s clogged up.’
“We’ve got to train our bodies to where we’re trying to make big plays all the time.”