Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Running Back Upgrades Please Held

By Brian Rosenthal

Count Ryan Held among those within the Nebraska football program who will offer a glowing testimonial for the job strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval continues to do.

Between work in the weight room and work on the recruiting trail, Held said he’s seen a significant upgrade with Nebraska’s running backs compared to the beginning of fall camp last season.

“It’s not even close,” said Held, beginning his second season as the Huskers’ running backs coach. “Physicality, Jiminy Christmas, just the aesthetics of looking at each one of our guys when they run out on the field, we’re looking like a football team.

“We look a heck of a lot better, which is encouraging.”

Running back should be a fascinating position to watch unfold throughout fall camp and the start of the season. What Nebraska is lacking in experience – 10 of the 13 running backs on roster are freshmen and sophomores – it aims to make up for in improved speed and overall talent.

The biggest difference between now and last spring is the competition factor. Held now has numbers in his room, what with all but one newcomer currently in camp, so players can push one another.

“Everybody’s got to bring his ‘A’ game every single day,” Held said. “We’ve got a good rapport right now. Guys are working hard to help each other out.”

Sophomore Maurice Washington headlines the short list of returnees. As a true freshman, Washington ran 77 times for 455 yards and displayed the speed that head coach Scott Frost wants and needs in his up-tempo offense. Washington also has shown the pass-catching ability Frost wants at the position.

“He’s been dialed in for meetings,” Held said of Washington. “He’s dialed in where he’s supposed to be, he’s dialed in on the practice field.”

Senior walk-on Wyatt Mazour is the only other returning running back who had a carry last season, as sophomore Jaylin Bradley redshirted after playing in seven games during the 2017 season.

Five newcomers, including junior college transfer Dedrick Mills, are joining the fray and pushing for playing time. Ideally, Held wants a 2-3 man rotation to keep the running backs fresh and physical.

“In this offense, and as fast as we go, and the physical Big Ten, you can’t just have one or two guys,” Held said. “You better have four or five guys ready, see what happens along the way.”

His advice to the newcomers looking to impress: Jump in and go 100 miles an hour rather than slowly dip your toe in the water.

Held has already seen one true freshman heed that advice – Rahmir Johnson. At the beginning camp, Held said Johnson was “tip-toeing through,” afraid to make a mistake.

“Two days ago,” Held said, “he freaking hit it and it was 60 yards. That’s what I want him to do.”

Desire to exceed. No fear of failure.

“I don’t care if he makes a mistake,” Held said. “I want him to go 100 miles an hour. His gift is his speed. He has the ability to really run. He’s soft on his feet. He can jump cut and then go.”

A four-star recruit from Oradell, N.J., Johnson ran for 2,300 yards in high school career and was a track standout, with a 10.5 time in the 100-meter dash.

“He’s got a chance. He’s a good player,” Held said. “I’ve just got to get him to cut it loose every time, but he’s got really good speed, he’s got sweet heat. Looks good.”

Mills, although he’s a newcomer, has more FBS attempts, rushing yards and touchdowns than every other running back on Nebraska’s roster combined. Those came during his freshman season at Georgia Tech, before Mills transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas, where he was tabbed as the No. 1 junior college running back in the nation.

Held raves about Mills’ work ethic, both on the field and in the weight room.

“He's a sweater," Held said. "We’ve got to have a towel with him at all times, because he works his rear off."

The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Mills will also provide a physical presence.

“Dedrick is a hammer,” Held said. “When we go to our power stuff and it’s downhill, the pile is going that way when he hits it downhill. He hits that thing downhill, which we have to have in this offense. You’ve got to have 2-3 guys to tackle that guy.”

A common trait of Frost’s offenses at Oregon and UCF were hybrid skill players who could play both running back and receiver, which is where freshman Wan’Dale Robinson enters the conversation. Already here in the spring, Robinson flashed the blazing speed that earned him top recruiting attention before a nagging hamstring slowed him.

Now healthy, Robinson “will definitely” play some running back, Held said, although he’s not certain what split the flashy Robinson will see between running back and receiver. He’s been working with both groups in practice. Redshirted freshman Miles Jones, listed among the receivers, is another player Held mentioned at running back.

“The good thing is we have guys who can do that now,” Held said. “They can be receivers and running backs. That’s what we wanted to do when we got here is recruit those hybrid type of players that Coach Frost had at Oregon and we had at UCF.”

As excited as Held is about each player's potential, and the group overall, he said it’s their responsibility, especially for the newcomers, to be able to learn and work during their own time.

“We can’t be playing Fortnight and 2K all night,” Held said. “You better be studying this stuff, because if you want to play, you need to know what you’re doing. I’m not going to have you out there not knowing what you’re doing and making a fool of all of us.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do, but I do like the fact of where they’re at as football players.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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