When Nebraska’s running backs group is full healthy, head coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have a stable of options to choose from.
Over the first half of the 2017 season, though, the Huskers’ backfield usage has been anything but stable.
The turmoil has largely been due to availability.
Sophomore Tre Bryant opened the season as the starter and in a feature back’s role, carrying 51 times in his first seven-plus quarters of work. A longstanding knee issue has held him out since the late stages of Sept. 9’s loss to Oregon, however.
Then junior Mikale Wilbon took over and handled the bulk of the Week 3 carries — 24 of 26 from running backs.
After that, he and fellow junior Devine Ozigbo shared the load — plus seven carries from freshman Jaylin Bradley — in wins over Rutgers and Illinois.
When Wilbon sprained his left ankle late against the Illini, only Ozigbo was left as a feature back against Wisconsin.
Got all that?
When the Huskers kick off Saturday night against No. 9 Ohio State, they will use a rotation of Ozigbo and Wilbon. Bryant began practice Thursday in pads and hoped to play this week, but dropped out early in the session and will now appear post-bye week at the earliest.
“We were fortunate that we had such good competition and I made note that we have better backs than we did a year ago and they’re all the same guys,” Riley said Thursday. “When first Mikale and then Devine stepped in, they did a nice job and we feel good about our chance to be successful with them playing.”
Another positive for the Huskers: Personnel changes haven’t forced them to dramatically change their approach.
“Not really, it just might change how it looks,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said. “But the plays we’re calling and the runs we’re running, all the guys are pretty good at just about everything we do. Some are slightly better than others on some runs, but there’s not a drastic difference.”
Ozigbo has eclipsed 100 yards in three straight games and said he felt good after his 23-carry outing against Wisconsin.
Wilbon said Monday his ankle felt much better, and he has made it through the practice week. They are listed as co-starters. Regardless of how the numbers split and who starts, they think they have the ability to do damage together.
“I don’t think people can stop that because we bring everything to the table,” Wilbon said of the 1-2 punch. “Devine brings more power running game to our offense, he also can catch and he’s also got good feet. I’m more of a speed type, shifty type running to our offense, I can also catch and I have a little power aspect.”
They may at some point also welcome Bryant back. The team insists he suffered no new damage in his knee but aggravated an existing condition. Riley last week said all the team could do was hope he felt better. Then Monday, the third-year coach said Bryant would begin practicing, but that a medical redshirt could not be ruled out.
No matter who plays, though, Riley said the backs and the offensive line must find better consistency.
“Our running game, it’s feast or famine,” he said Monday. “It’s some good runs, but too many nothing runs. So we’ve got to be more consistent in our running game.”
Indeed, Ozigbo’s numbers against a top-10 Wisconsin rushing defense looked good on the surface — 112 yards and a 4.9 average — but 10 of his runs (43 percent) went for 2 or fewer yards. He was stopped for no gain on his final three carries, which came on the same third-quarter drive.
Ozigbo and the NU offense opened their evening with a powerful, 13-yard burst. After that, they averaged just 2.6 yards on 12 first-down rushes, too often leaving themselves long yardage second and third downs.
“That consistency in the run game has to be there,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “The emphasis is, you can’t let them off (their blocks) because they’re so good. So, to me, the whole thing is once you’ve (made contact), that’s when the play starts. Then you have to finish it.”
The Buckeyes are allowing 2.9 yards per carry, the third-best mark in the Big Ten, and lead the league by a wide margin with 57 tackles for loss.
“It’s different (from UW) because it’s a four-down front,” Cavanaugh said. “They’ve just got some really talented, athletic guys. It’s a big challenge.”
The Huskers have only seven 20-plus yard runs through six games. Bryant had rushes of 24 and 35 in the season opener, and NU has recorded one in each game since, none longer than Ozigbo’s 28-yard burst late in the second quarter against the Badgers. Only three other league teams — Purdue, Rutgers and Iowa — don’t have a running play of at least 42 yards this fall.
That lack of home run-type play, Wilbon says, falls on his group’s shoulders.
“(The offensive line’s) job is to get us to the second level and our job is to beat the second level,” he said. “I really kind of get mad at myself that I don’t beat the second level and just score. Practicing this week with fresh legs, I’m hoping to beat the second level.”