Mikale Wilbon arrived in Lincoln a year ago fully prepared to spend a season behind the scenes. And if he had any other ideas, he only had to remember some good advice from a trusted source.
“My mom was like, ‘Redshirt. Let Ameer (Abdullah) have his year, and redshirt,’” Wilbon said.
Mother knows best. Mother knew there was one Husker running back and then everyone else in 2014.
But 2015? That door is cracked open and young Wilbon might have as good of moves as anyone in the running back stable to slip through it.
While Terrell Newby opened the season as the starter, Wilbon and Imani Cross emerged as the other key backs in a three-man committee during Nebraska's 33-28 loss to BYU. Wilbon rushed six times for 14 yards, numbers that included a 7-yard loss on a play where he had no chance the moment he got the ball.
Most impressive, however, was the way the redshirt freshman worked the screen game, catching two passes for 28 yards.
If you can’t catch the ball out of the backfield these days, Wilbon knows "there's not much use for you."
Described a year ago as a scout-team monster by peers, and even some coaches, Wilbon felt plenty comfortable taking his first spin in a college game Saturday.
“It really built my confidence up a lot. I was going against Randy (Gregory), Zaire (Anderson), going against them every day in practice,” he said. “So I’m trying to embarrass those guys because they’re trying to hit me. And them are all NFL guys, so they definitely got me better.”
Wilbon was also watching something else last fall — the way Abdullah used his feet. “His feet are amazing. I try to practice on my footwork every day of practice. I learned that a lot from him.”
The confidence is easy to find in the 5-foot-8, 190-pound back from Chicago.
“Run, pass, I can do it all,” he said of his skill set. And while he had no beef at all with getting six carries in his first college game, he also believes, “If I get in a rhythm, I’m going to keep going.”
He’ll also tell you he’s been humbled by the college game. He wants to improve his blocking. Doing everything well matters in a backfield that's full of guys who, just like him, were star recruits in high school.
“The competition is crazy,” Wilbon said. “Everybody is four stars nowadays. They really push me to do great things.”
Husker coach Mike Riley was thinking about those running backs Monday when he discussed Saturday’s tough loss.
"We want to run the ball better with the tailback. We need to be that team,” the coach said, after a game in which his running backs combined for 23 carries and 91 yards.
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That statement, Riley pointed out, isn’t some negative critique about the running backs' play. “I don’t think we were very clean up front blocking for the tailback runs. We’ve got to pick out the best stuff for this game, and get some repeated runs in there so our tailbacks get used to it.”
Wilbon, who made a big push in fall camp after a nondescript spring, is eager for whatever work he can get.
Nerves? He didn’t notice them once he got his number called Saturday.
“I thought I’d come into the game nervous, but when you have coaches behind you in practice hollering at you, ‘Why you mess up? Why you doing all this?’ It really got me focused. It got me better a lot,” he said.
A lot has changed for him since he signed with Nebraska in 2014. Coaches and friends have moved on.
He was very close with wide receivers Jariah Tolbert and Glenn Irons, the two New Orleans natives who are no longer on the team. They were his roommates.
It didn’t end well here for Tolbert and Irons, but they did get Wilbon in a competitive mode. “We competed in everything. Eating food, trying to talk to this girl. We competed in everything. They’re going to be missed by me.”
Wilbon said he’s since bonded with quarterback AJ Bush, and he rooms with a bunch of offensive linemen now: Tanner Farmer, Chongo Kondolo and David Knevel.
“I like it. No egos,” he said of those guys. “I think, as a running back, or as a skill-position (guy), they’re blocking for you, so take care of them. I try to take care of them as much as you can.”
Wilbon has adjusted to a new coaching staff and a new way of doing things.
“It’s a little more strict,” he said. “You just gotta be careful, watch out for yourself. Do the right thing all the time, basically. That’s what Coach Riley tells us all the time. ‘Do the right thing.’ We know what it means. Just be a good person. That’s it.”
At one point in the recruiting process, Wilbon was committed to Vanderbilt when James Franklin was there. Franklin then moved to Penn State. The running back thought about following him.
He visited Penn State. “I didn’t like it.” He did like former Husker running backs coach Ron Brown. He thought of Nebraska as a running team. Here he is.
In the spring, as he tried to make his move up the depth chart, Wilbon said too often he got the ball and thought, "Just go."
The biggest change has been patience. Whether it’s a screen pass or a run play, patience must be on display.
“Everything has to set up. Let my linemen set up, get them blocking and I’m gone,” he said. “It’s an art to run the ball, basically. It probably don’t seem like it is. But it’s an art. A lot of people don’t do that.”