Mikale Wilbon, 9.5.15

Coach Mike Riley says Mikale Wilbon needs to step up his overall game.

Things I know, and things I think I know:

He showed serious zip on a few runs early last season and then, poof, disappeared into depth-chart oblivion.

Mikale Wilbon, though, is prominent on Nebraska football coach Mike Riley's running-back radar as the team prepares to begin spring practice Saturday.

"We'll miss Imani Cross — what he brought," Riley said of the 2015 senior. "But I really was encouraged by Terrell Newby as the year went on and also Devine Ozigbo."

However, "The guy we have to get going is Mikale Wilbon," Riley said. "He's got the ability. He's just got to get into the flow — learn better and then produce. Abilitywise, he should be playing."

In four decades of coaching — including a quarter-century as a head coach — Riley has seen too many players fail to live up to their potential. It happens in life. It's inevitable in some cases. Here's hoping Wilbon doesn't become one of those players. He does indeed possess big-time potential — the potential to be the team's best back.

Nebraska needs him to step up. The depth chart isn't exactly teeming with big-play running backs, although Newby and Ozigbo are solid players with much different styles.

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Newby, a senior with shifty moves, last season rushed 147 times for 765 yards (5.2 per carry) and six touchdowns. Ozigbo, a more powerful runner at 5-11 and 225, finished with 39 carries for 216 yards (5.5) and one TD.

Playing last season as a true freshman, Ozigbo left a lasting impression with his 21-carry, 87-yard performance in the bowl-game triumph against UCLA.

The 5-8, 190-pound Wilbon, a sophomore from Chicago, had nine carries for 35 yards in the first two games last season, then was hardly heard from again. He never had another carry. Reggie Davis, the Husker running backs coach, shed light as to why in an interview in December.

"Mikale has to get a real good grasp of the offense, to where the errors are not there and he's on top of the plays — play-in and play-out," Davis said. "Consistency is probably the best way to say it."

That's almost exactly what Riley said last week.

"It's one thing for a running back to take a handoff," he said. "But is he going to pick up the right guy in pass protection? Is he going to run the pass route the right way? Consistency in the playbook is a good way to sum it all up."

Wilbon was a four-star recruit and in 2014 shared Nebraska's scout-team offensive MVP award with offensive lineman Jerald Foster.

"I'll tell you something," Riley said. "When I saw him in the offseason program — when I first got here (in December 2014) and didn't know anybody — I saw right away that he has ability. Change of direction. Strong, fast.

"He's a good guy. Has good habits. But he's got to compete and get in there and do all the parts (of the position). It's very difficult to put a running back in the game if he's one-dimensional."

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Spring practice is a good proving ground for young players, and Wilbon will have something to prove.

* We need to make something crystal clear: Riley's stated objective of finishing among the top three in the Big Ten in rushing doesn't necessarily mean Nebraska will run the ball more often in games.

The objective, he said, is to run more efficiently and improve on last year's average of 4.7 yards per carry — NU's lowest average since 2011 (4.6).

Last season, Nebraska essentially had a 50/50 run-pass ratio (496 rushes/458 passes).

"I like that. I've always liked that," Riley said. "Not every game is going to turn out like UCLA."

Against a beat-up Bruin defense, Nebraska ran the ball 62 times for 326 yards (5.3 per carry), and threw just 19 times.

"It just became a formula for that ballgame," Riley said. "I don't think you can beat Michigan State or Iowa like that. Not 62 rushes in a game. I always say, 'We're going to play the game we're in.'

"Now, we have to be mindful of what we want to establish, too."

Which is?

"Balance," he said.

Bottom line, "I really believe, with what I now know about our team, if we do run the ball more effectively, it's going to be OK," the coach said.

* Don't mistake Billy Devaney's role on Nebraska's staff as being geared entirely toward recruiting. The "special assistant to the head coach" part of his title ventures elsewhere.

Riley said one of Devaney's first tasks will be to figure out ways the Huskers can play better in games with an 11 a.m. kickoff.

"I want Billy to give me an idea of what we should do better during the week of the game, during that game day," said Riley, noting NU's home loss to Northwestern last season. "I just was so disappointed in how we came out in that game."

* Watching the magician Stephen Curry is breathtaking. His Saturday display in prime time was inspiring enough that my 12-year-old nephew wanted his dad to take him to the gym — at 10:30 p.m. Beautiful.

* Hearty congrats to radio broadcaster Lane Grindle, a major-league good dude. The Milwaukee Brewers made a wise acquisition.

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


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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