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Steven M. Sipple: If you're Husker fan, you hope Applewhite grasps program's rich RB history

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Nebraska vs. Minnesota, 10.16

Nebraska running back Rahmir Johnson carries the ball on Oct. 16, 2021, in Minneapolis.

Sometimes you stumble upon a gift that brightens your day and even captures your imagination.

Saturday morning, I came across a foreword that Frank Solich wrote for a book the Journal Star published before the 1998 season, "The Best of the Big Red Running Backs." 

Solich, of course, coached Nebraska running backs at a remarkably high level from 1983 to 1997 before taking over as the Huskers' head coach in 1998. 

"Great running backs have the ability to anticipate, to feel the pressure of the chaos surrounding them on the field, and to create their own path to pay dirt," Solich wrote, as it dawns on you that those words could be regarded as a wonderful metaphor for life. 

But let's stick to football. 

"They must not only take the pain that comes with the pounding of being the target of would-be tacklers, they must be willing to initiate contact and deliver hits of their own to defensive players," Solich continued. "Running backs must be willing to study the game, know where the holes are going to be, follow their blockers and handle their own blocking assignments when they are not carrying the ball. 

"The ability to excel at the mental aspects of the game along with being able to meet the physical demands of college football separates these tremendous athletes from the rest of the field." 

Solich often used the word "tremendous" in his days at Nebraska. It was a go-to word. It's one of his endearing qualities. 

In recent years, we haven't been able to use "tremendous" to describe many Nebraska running backs. 

If you're a Nebraska football fan, you hope Bryan Applewhite, hired Jan. 13 as the Huskers' running backs coach, understands the position's decline at NU in recent years. You hope he immediately sets about to return the position to one of strength in the program. To one that produces All-Americans. Imagine that.

You hope he appreciates the importance of the position in Nebraska's football-rich history. Such an understanding could motivate him daily.

During a radio interview last week, Applewhite displayed a level of knowledge of his position's history at NU as he recounted a conversation with Anthony Grant, a junior college running back who recently signed with the school. 

"I was like, 'Do you know who the first running back was in the history of the NFL to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving? And what college did he go to?'" Applewhite said during a break from recruiting in Texas. "He couldn't say. But it's Roger Craig. Now, if you come down to Texas and ask a high school coach that question, they'll know that answer.

"A lot of people say Nebraska is the original Tailback U." 

He's right about that. Nebraska was a Tailback U. But we've almost forgotten it. We need to remember elements that once made Nebraska into a powerhouse program, especially those elements that can transcend time and even style of offense. 

There's no reason Nebraska, in whatever style of offense Scott Frost and Mark Whipple come up with for 2022, can't have a 1,000-yard rusher, assuming they don't go to a radical pass-happy system. Of course, it would require having a back capable of getting 1,000 yards. That's been a problem. It needs to stop being a problem, especially considering the position's rich history in the program. 

Nebraska has had only one 1,000-yard rusher since the great Ameer Abdullah ran for 1,611 yards (6.1 yards per carry) in 2014. Since then, only Devine Ozigbo has cracked the 1,000-yard barrier, rushing for 1,082 in 2018 (7.0 ypc). 

This stuff isn't anything Nebraska fans don't already know. I just hope Applewhite understands the issue. Because he can control it. 

If you're a Nebraska fan, you hope Applewhite understands that the running back position at Nebraska was once coveted by high school backs around the nation, even as in-state backs (think Ahman Green, Calvin Jones, Ken Clark, Keith Jones, etc.) were starring for Big Red. 

You hope Applewhite understands that he's landed at a school that from 1962 to 1998 won 13 NCAA rushing titles and five national championships. 

As a 1993 graduate of Brighton High School in northeast Colorado, Applewhite said he possesses a keen awareness of Nebraska's glory years. He may even understand that there's a level of prestige attached to the position of running backs coach at Nebraska. From 1962 to 1997, NU had only two of them, Solich and Mike Corgan (1962 to 1982). 

"Iron Mike," as Craig used to call him.

So, back to Solich's foreword. He notes Nebraska's "seemingly continuous stream of tremendous running backs." 

Yes, there once was a continuous stream, and it was tremendous. 

"Running backs with the slashing styles of I.M. Hipp, Jarvis Redwine and Derek Brown have fit into Nebraska's ground game," Solich wrote, "but so have backs with the power of Tony Davis, Jeff Kinney and Tom Rathman.

"Roger Craig, Calvin Jones, Keith Jones and Ahman Green have carried the ball with explosive, north-south speed, while other great backs such as Ken Clark, Doug DuBose, Lawrence Phillips, Jeff Smith and Mike Rozier used their versatility in every running style imaginable to dominate their opponents." 

Sometimes it's fun to look back in time. This was fun. 

Sometimes looking back can inform you (or remind you) of what you need in order to achieve future success.

Bottom line, Nebraska needs to find more paths to pay dirt. 

That would be tremendous.


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Husker sports 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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