March 16, 2010

Running backs could take huge step this spring

HuskerIllustrated.com is priming its subscribers for Nebraska's 2010 spring practice with a daily countdown of coverage.


Each day, HI.com will break down a different position and focus on what needs to be accomplished at that position over spring practice. We will also talk about other faces to watch at each position.


In addition, each day we'll feature one key veteran and one rising underclassman at all positions until spring practice gets underway. Today, we take a look at the running back position.


Running back
The contenders

The position coach:
Tim Beck, third year at Nebraska



The co-frontrunner: Roy Helu

Class: Senior

Size: 6-2, 210

Early take: In his first stint as the No. 1 running back last year following his breakout sophomore campaign, Roy Helu was slowed for much of the season with lingering injuries that limited his production. However, he still managed to play in all 14 games and lead Nebraska with 1,147 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.


With a full off-season to heal and some more experienced depth behind him, the senior could be poised for his best year yet.


It's not as if Helu has the starting job locked up entirely, though. Considering the emerging talent the Huskers have coming up through the ranks, he'll still have to go out this spring and reaffirm his place on top of the depth chart.



The co-frontrunner: Rex Burkhead

Class: Sophomore

Size: 5-11, 200

Early take: Arguably no Nebraska offensive player ended last season on a better note than Rex Burkhead, as he flourished in the Holiday Bowl win over Arizona with a game-high 89 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.


After battling back from a foot injury that forced him to miss five games last season, Burkhead came into his own during the final four games. That momentum is expected to carry right on over into the spring, as the sophomore is expected to push Helu for the starting job throughout the entire season.


In particular, this spring could prove a huge step in Burkhead's development if the Huskers continue to expand his role in the Wildcat package, which worked to near perfection against Arizona.



The challenger: Dontrayevous Robinson

Class: Sophomore

Size: 6-1, 215

Early take: While Burkhead got the majority of the attention for making an instant impact as a true freshman last season, fellow freshman Dontrayevous Robinson certainly did his part as well.


Especially while Burkhead was out and Helu was nursing a hamstring injury, Robinson burned his redshirt midway through the year made his backfield debut against Iowa State, picking up 77 yards and a touchdown.


Considering how Nebraska likes to rotate its running backs, Robinson could definitely make a push for some decent playing time this spring, particularly with Helu and Burkhead's history of injury issues.



The challenger: Lester Ward

Class: Redshirt sophomore

Size: 6-3, 215

Early take: It seemed that all last season Nebraska's coaches were touting Lester Ward as the No. 3 running back behind Helu and Burkhead because of his performance in practice.


However, he rarely saw the field, and the Huskers even decided to burn Robinson's redshirt rather than hand the keys over to Ward. Will this be the spring he finally establishes himself as a viable option in the backfield rotation? Considering the depth at the position, he's got a lot of work to do if he wants to get there.


Other contenders: Juniors Marcus Mendoza and Austin Jones and sophomore Collins Okafor.


Early take: Fans have been waiting three years for Marcus Mendoza to finally find his role in Nebraska's offense, and it looks like he's found a home at running back. Outside of some special packages and plays to get him the ball in space, though, it seems unlikely he'll have a much bigger impact this year.


Austin Jones is a hard worker and has surprised his coaches after coming in as a walk-on, and he should help provide good competition and depth. Though he had some issues and left the team for a day last season, Collins Okafor appears to be content continuing to work for playing time.


Spring prospectus: This spring could be the point where Burkhead takes the next step, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he comes into the fall as a co-No. 1 with Helu. Last year, Helu was forced to shoulder the bulk of the offensive production, and he eventually wore down as the season went along. Now with more depth to help give him some rest, I can also see Helu going back to being the explosive playmaker he was early last season and towards the end of his sophomore year.


What does the future hold?: While it looks like Burkhead is well on his way to eventually replacing Helu as the No. 1, there's still plenty of competition left to play out behind him. Robinson could blossom into a real player with some more experience and playing time, and if one of the other backs can finally emerge out of the pack, the Huskers could be well stocked at running back for years to come.


Key veteran
Prince Amukamara


Position: Cornerback

Class: Senior

Size: 6-1, 200

The skinny: By the end of last season, senior Prince Amukamara was emerging as all-conference talent at cornerback. With the progress he's already made in the two years since the arrival of head coach Bo Pelini and his staff, there's no reason he can't reach even higher ranks this year.


The final word: With his combination of strength and athleticism, Amukamara could be the first true lockdown corner the Huskers have had in years. As a result, teams will likely have to game plan their offense around him, making an already stingy pass defense even better and allowing Pelini to dial up more blitzes than ever before.


Rising underclassmen
Rex Burkhead


Position: Running back

Class: Sophomore

Size: 5-11, 200

The skinny: As previously noted, Burkhead has more than lived up to the hype he received last season coming in as one of the top high school backs in Texas. More than anything, what made him so valuable was his ability to come up with crucial plays on third down, whether it was making an extra effort on a run or hauling in a nice catch out of the backfield.


The final word: Even if he doesn't supplant Helu as the starter, there's no doubt that Burkhead will play a big role in Nebraska's offense this season. Even with having played just nine games in college career, the Plano, Texas, native is already considered by many as one of NU's best offensive players.













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