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Ron Brown is a spiritual man, not an odds maker. He focuses on truth, makes decisions on facts and sees certainty mostly in biblical terms. But when the subject is Rex Burkhead, No. 22 in your program and 22 years old since last July, the longest tenured football coach on Nebraska's staff is willing to make an exception. Following Nebraska's 45-31 loss to Georgia in Tuesday's Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Brown explained Wednesday why he believes Burkhead, a History major who received his Bachelor's degree in just 3½ years at Nebraska, is ready to move on to the next level.
Despite missing six games this season with a strained knee ligament, Burkhead's season best 140-yard rushing performance increased his four-year bowl total to 357 yards. That enabled Burkhead to supplant Dan Alexander (349 career yards) as the Huskers' career rushing leader in bowl games at the same time he finished No. 5 on Nebraska's all-time rushing chart (3,329 yards, 30 rushing touchdowns and five receiving TDs). "You saw the (16-yard touchdown) catch Rex made in the end zone to give us the (24-23) halftime lead," Brown said. "That was a phenomenal catch."
It was so phenomenal that Brown voluntarily went beyond where he usually goes when he described Burkhead's vertical skills while extending his arms and leaping to make the catch before landing in the end zone. On that play, "Rex looked like he belongs anywhere in the country and even at the next level," Brown said, "That was a tough catch, an outstanding catch. To me, that's why I think he'll be a great NFL player."
Brown Will Be Shocked If Rex Isn't Outstanding
Brown's superlative is intentional. "I don't think Rex is just going to be a good one. I think he's going to be a very, very good one," Brown said. "I would be shocked if he doesn't turn out to be an outstanding player in that league. I don't know what people think of his tape, but when I looked at a young (Nebraska native) Danny Woodhead and all he was able to accomplish in high school (North Platte) and college (Chadron, Neb., State) before going to the NFL, I see Rex being in that same mold and maybe a little bit larger."
Brown said Rex has all the tools to excel in the NFL. "He's an outstanding pass receiver," Brown pointed out. "He can run inside. He can run outside. He can pass protect. He's smart. He's a good special team player, and he brings a great bit of integrity to everything he does and everyone around him.
"The Bible says the city rejoices when the righteous rule," Brown said. "We all know how Rex is a young man who stands for all the right things. He's who God intended him to be. If the Lord permits Rex to play pro football, his skills and talents will make a whole city rejoice in the pros just like he's made the whole state of Nebraska rejoice here."
In the meantime, Burkhead will train in southern climes for February's NFL Combine. Already invited to the Jan. 19 East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., Burkhead's bowl performance might elevate his status as a candidate to play in the Senior Bowl a week later in Mobile, Ala. "He's given everything he's had to Nebraska, and now he's going home to train," Brown said, acknowledging Burkhead's implicit trust in being close to his father, Rick, who can help manage his future while Rex focuses his efforts on training for the NFL Draft.
Burkhead's Successes Testaments to Character
"With Team Jack and everything associated with that, Rex has shown what he's made of," Brown said. "He wins that national award and team captain honors for the Allstate Good Works team, and he achieves Academic All-American. All of those things represent what he stands for. What can you say about a kid who dedicates himself to things like that at the same time he was All-Big Ten and a Heisman Trophy candidate?"
You can say that this multifaceted student-athlete is the same Rex Burkhead who led Plano Senior High School to a state basketball championship when he was the starting point guard as a freshman. "I've gone recruiting in Texas and had people I don't know come up and tell me how they remember watching Rex on that team," Brown said. "He was a big-time basketball player at a young age.
"Somewhere down the line, he got that vision and that inspiration from his mom (Robyn), his dad and his brother (Ryan), who went to Harvard," Brown said. "I mean, the high standards in his home and the high standards in that family's lives are great examples for all of us. Set the bar high for kids and let them go after things. Encourage them when they're young. Don't just say do this, stay away from that and be a good citizen. Give them something to say yes to, not no to!"
Despite Circumstances, No Change in Routines
"I love Rex Burkhead," Brown said. "The mark of a great person is the ability to be circumstance free. When people go through certain experiences, some things are non-negotiable. They set the standard, set the dial and put a stake in the ground. When he got hurt, he didn't change his routine one bit. He had to do some things he normally wouldn't do, but by and large, he kept coming to the film room and studied. He kept working on his weights, his eye-hand coordination and all the other little things that you would think all the other guys would blow off.
"Not Rex. At the same time he did all those extras, he kept encouraging all of our other running backs. That's the mark of Rex Burkhead's true greatness to me," Brown said. "What I've learned from him and what everyone on our whole football team has learned from him is that you just stay the course no matter what, even when things are down for you. Some people lose their hope after awhile. Not Rex. That kid is always looking for inspiration and ways to whet his appetite and help his teammates."
Burkhead may have been the most emotional player in Nebraska's locker room Tuesday afternoon. "He was down. He didn't want to go out like this," Brown said. "I told Rex he doesn't know how much losing him means, but because of the way he's invested himself in his teammates, Ameer (Abdullah), Braylon (Heard) and Imani (Cross) are all going to be so much better because of what he's been feeding them. I see the same benefits for Andy (Janovich) and C.J. (Zimmerer). We have a lot of really good players coming back, and because of Rex, they know where that dial is set. I think we can be very, very good next year, but we have to work really hard in the off-season and do what we have to do to get closer and closer."
Finding Silver Linings in Darkness of Losses
"I remember when we lost by two touchdowns (27-14) to Florida State in a 1992 Orange Bowl that a lot of people view like this game (against Georgia)," Brown said. "The next year we lost to Florida State in a rematch by two (18-16), and the year after that (1994), we won the national championship (against Miami). Then we won another national title in 1995 (62-26 in Tempe, Ariz.), and the team we beat (Florida) won it the next year (1996). Then we won a third national title, and the team we beat (Tennessee, 42-17, in the Orange Bowl) won the national championship the next year (1998). Looking back, I've seen how teams rebound from tough bowl losses like we experienced. I think we've learned a lot this year, and I think there's a lot to look forward to next year."
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