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Michigan State vs. Nebraska, 11.17

Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held greets his fellow coaches during warmups prior to the Michigan State game on Nov. 17.

Ryan Held dubs it "the three-stripe life," and he’s not talking about Adidas leisure apparel.

The Nebraska running backs coach has a certain way — it's far from leisurely — that he wants his players to finish each of their runs in practice.

“No matter the result of the play, you have to figure out how to break loose and at least give him three more stripes,” said Husker standout Devine Ozigbo, referring to the yardage lines. "It could mean anywhere from 10 to 15 to 20 more yards after you’ve been stopped. You still work moves at the next level.”

Finish plays. Finish drills. Finish reps in the weight room. Finish homework. Do it all with gusto.

"Those are things that a lot of coaches tell their players," Ozigbo said. "Coach Held actually brought it out of us, which helped us a lot."

The development of Nebraska's running backs, particularly Ozigbo and true freshman Maurice Washington, was a key reason the Huskers made dramatic improvement in their rushing attack this season, averaging 209 yards on the ground to rank 27th nationally. In 2017, the last season of the Mike Riley era, NU averaged only 107.5 rushing yards (120th).

A senior from Sachse, Texas, Ozigbo enjoyed easily his best collegiate season, carrying 155 times for 1,082 yards (7.0 per carry) and 12 touchdowns. He entered the season with 1,114 career rushing yards on 4.2 per attempt, with nine TDs.

It all adds up to Held earning the Journal Star's annual award for Husker assistant football coach of the year.

The selection committee, essentially comprised of the voices in my head, also strongly considered quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco for his work with uber-talented Adrian Martinez and offensive line coach Greg Austin for pumping life into a unit that had sagged badly in the Riley era. Secondary coach Travis Fisher also merited consideration, especially for the development of corners Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson.

But Held gets the nod in part for the energy he injected into his crew. For instance, he helped Ozigbo’s overall outlook on practice.

“He improved the intensity we'd all go to practice with,” Ozigbo said. "The first couple of practices, they were not easy. Then, when it got toward the end of the season, we knew practice was going to be hard and we’d complain. But we would be able to go out there and handle it just because of everything he pushed us through earlier in the season.

"He brings the same energy every day," Ozigbo added. "Whether you’re 0-6 or 4-2, we got the same coach Held. There wasn’t a change in his attitude according to how things were going. He brought the same energy and expected our best no matter what was going on, which was nice. He kept it consistent."

In addition to helping Ozigbo's rise, Held groomed Washington, who arrived in Lincoln only days before the start of preseason camp in August. Nevertheless, Washington rushed 77 times for 455 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns while adding 24 receptions for 221 yards and a score.

Held's work this season developing players adds credence to the possibility of Washington becoming a star at Nebraska. The 6-foot-1 Washington weighed only 170-some pounds this season. Think how much he could benefit from gaining 20 more pounds this offseason while retaining his blazing speed.  

"He’s a guy who’d be one of our best receivers, if we needed him to be, he’s the guy who could go guard on the gunner on the punt return team, he’s a guy who could be the gunner on punt team," Held said during the season. "He’s an all-around guy. He’s a matchup difficulty."

Washington is a finisher. He attacks defenders. He'll continue to do that in part because Held demands it every day in practice. My early impression of Held is he recruits high-end talent (look at the running backs he's helped land, including all-purpose back Wandale Robinson) and pushes those players to become the sort of runners that Nebraska fans long ago — before even 1983 Heisman winner Mike Rozier — came to appreciate.

"He puts his players in the best positions to get it done," Ozigbo said. "It’s not like a stressful thing all the time. It’s just go out there and do what you’re supposed to do. Go out there and be as great as possible, honestly."

Sounds like a good life plan. A three-stripe life, if you will.

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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