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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — These situations can be a bit awkward.

The Music City Bowl had been finished for only about 20 minutes. Even so, Nebraska sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo already was fielding questions from reporters about next season, and the possibility of him taking over as the team's No. 1 running back.

"That's definitely something I'm going to work for," he said Friday right outside the Husker locker room at Nissan Stadium. "We have a bunch of good backs that are going to push each other. But I'm definitely going to shoot for that No. 1 spot and make it my goal, just do everything in my power to claim that No. 1 RB spot."

The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Ozigbo may have helped his cause in Nebraska's 38-24 bowl loss to Tennessee. He was forced into the lead role in the second quarter when senior starter Terrell Newby left the game for good with an injury.

Ozigbo finished the game with 66 yards on seven carries, including a 42-yard burst in the third quarter that set up a touchdown. He also caught a pass for 11 yards.

It qualified as a breakout game of sorts for Ozigbo, considering he was significantly limited by injuries for most of the second half of the season. He didn't record a carry in the last three regular-season games, but appeared full-go against the Volunteers.

"It's not the way I wanted it to happen," he said of his extensive playing time in the bowl. "I wanted Terrell to have a great last game. But I was ready when my number was called."

His day wasn’t perfect. He admittedly has struggled in pass protection, and his breakdown in that area led to Ryker Fyfe being sacked for a 7-yard loss in the second quarter.

Asked to identify areas where his game needs improvement, Ozigbo said he must "continue to grow as a pass protector — you know, identify defenses and get my hands and body and feet in the right spots."

He also said he wants to add to his straight-line speed, “so when I break through (into the secondary), I can finish long runs.

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"It's all the little things," he added. "It's ball security, just being an all-around, more complete back."

Ozigbo finished this season with 97 carries for 412 yards, or 4.2 per attempt. He began with a flourish, rushing 17 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns against Fresno State in the season opener and 21 times for 95 yards and a TD in the third game, against Oregon.

His season took a turn for the worse Oct. 1, when he sprained his right ankle against Illinois. He carried only once in the next two games. However, against Wisconsin, he rushed 10 times for 33 yards and a score.

Against the Badgers, though, he suffered a strained Achilles tendon in his left leg. You can imagination his frustration.

But he looks forward to next season with a sense of optimism. His main competition for the No. 1 running back job likely will come from sophomore-to-be Tre Bryant, who sat out the bowl game with a hamstring injury. Bryant finished this season with 43 carries for 172 yards (4.0 ypc), while also returning 23 kickoffs for 508 yards (22.1 ypr).

In addition, junior-to-be Mikale Wilbon will try to break though in 2017. He finished this year with 15 carries for 90 yards (6.0 ypc) after rushing just once in the bowl game.

Ozigbo sounds optimistic about the entire offense’s future.

“It was crazy hugging the seniors (after the bowl game),” he said. “But for the young guys, there’s no excuse for next year. We have a good core of guys coming back, a good core of guys coming in. We have a lot of guys who can develop.

“We should not have any games where we beat ourselves. A team’s going to have to come out and just be way better than us if they want to beat us next year.

“That’s what we’re focusing on.”

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

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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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