Nebraska football has made it clear: it’s focusing on depth.
With the new medical protocols for this season, a player who tests positive for the coronavirus can’t return to action for a minimum of 21 days. This means that the player would miss at least three games, which equates to a third of the entire season.
With that, running backs coach Ryan Held and quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco talked about the depth of their respective position groups in a press conference Thursday morning.
Senior running back Dedrick Mills led the Husker running backs in carries, yards, and touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry in 2019. Held said Mills is going to be the “bell cow” this year, perhaps with an even bigger role in the offense.
“I expect a big senior year for him,” Held said. You know, he's going to have to carry a good amount of reps for us. So he's done really well up to this point. I know he's excited to keep getting better and get ready for the first game.”
Behind Mills, the Huskers have an inexperienced group. When discussing who could step up as the No. 2 back, Held mentioned redshirt freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins. Last year, Johnson played in four games, the most a player can play in without losing redshirt eligibility. In those four games, Johnson only received carries in two, with most of his work coming in a blowout against Maryland.
He had 18 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown against the Terrapins, adding a 12-yard reception on top of that. Johnson put on weight this offseason as well, according to Held.
“He's done a really good job, this fall camp, he's gotten bigger, probably put on 10 pounds or so,” he said. “He's being more physical, catching the ball better, his understanding of the offense is better. So he's definitely in the mix.”
Thompkins didn’t play at all last season while recovering from injury, and the Huskers are careful with his involvement in practice as a result. Held said that it’s good to see Thompkins back out there.
Held also had praise for two freshman running backs, Sevion Morrison and Marvin Scott III. He said that Scott III runs hard and is “very physical,” and he’s put a lot of work in in the weight room.
“He looks like a senior in a freshman’s body right now,” Held said. “He’s paid the price in the weight room and really put himself in position physically.”
As for Morrison, Held said that he’ll have a “bright future” with the Huskers. The biggest thing for both backs is, as freshman, that they still have a lot of learning to do before he’s ready to shine.
Sophomore receiver Wan’Dale Robinson was more of an all-purpose back last season, with over twice as many rushing attempts as he had receptions. Oftentimes, Nebraska would have Robinson line up in the backfield. However, Held said that won’t happen as much this year, as he’ll be lining up at slot receiver on a majority of plays. That being said, Robinson still may see rushing touches.
With Robinson in the slot, that can add another element to the passing attack. While junior Adrian Martinez is currently slated to start at quarterback when the season begins, redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey has also impressed.
“You'd love to have as many good quarterbacks in your room as possible that you feel good about, that you feel can go into a game if they have some game prep and win a game for you,” Verduzco said. “So, yeah, I feel good about Adrian and Luke both.”
McCaffrey shined in limited action last season. In four games, he completed nine of 12 pass attempts for 142 yards and two touchdowns. On top of that, he had 166 rushing yards and a touchdown, along with a 12-yard reception.
According to Verduzco, the area where McCaffrey has improved most is putting “thrust on the ball,” and being more effective and efficient with his throws. McCaffrey said that he’s also learned a lot from Martinez, and that has helped a lot of his growth.
“I'm so thankful to have a guy like him, a leader like him, who's ahead of me that I can look up to,” McCaffrey said. “And since the first day I've been on campus, he's welcomed me with open arms and kind of showed me the way of the road here.”
Martinez echoed a similar sentiment about his fellow quarterback, saying that the quarterback competition has inspired him to get better.
“Luke's been pushing me and I love it. I'm here for the competition. He's a talented guy,” Martinez said. “He gets after it, I get after it. And I think that's definitely helped me progress as a player. And it's gotten some fire out of me. And I think it's great for both of us. And it's great for this team.”
Behind those two, freshman Logan Smothers, who was a four-star coming out of high school, is one of the names that could make an impact if needed. Sophomore Matt Masker and redshirt freshman Brayden Miller fill out the quarterback room.
While Verduzco expressed confidence in the capabilities of each quarterback, he said that they’re doing everything they can safety-wise to not get into a situation where one or multiple needs to sit out due to the coronavirus.
“You certainly don't want to lose your quarterbacks, nor any person on the team for that matter,” he said. “But you certainly are cautious about that and making certain you're doing everything to keep those cats healthy.”