Following the conclusion of the Nebraska football season, The Daily Nebraskan will be examining the success of each position. This is the third part of this series, evaluating the running back position.
Coming into the 2019 season, Nebraska’s running back depth appeared to be one of the strong points of the team.
Sophomore Maurice Washington was explosive in 2018 behind Devine Ozigbo, and was primed to have his chance to shine as the feature back. Junior Dedrick Mills transferred to the Huskers and it seemed he could quickly form a one-two punch with Washington. On top of that, true freshman all-purpose back Wan’Dale Robinson was likely to see some carries along with playing at wide receiver.
Mix those three along with the ability to play true freshman Rahmir Johnson in four games without burning his redshirt, and there was a running back room that had the potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten. However, things didn’t turn out that way.
Nebraska still had a strong rushing attack, finishing third in the conference in rushing yards per game. However, the Huskers couldn’t find a long-term option at running back. A Nebraska running back topped 100 yards in a game just twice in 2019, and its second-leading rusher was sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez by nearly 300 yards.
Washington was expected to become a star this season, but injuries and off-the-field issues brought those expectations to a halt. He was suspended for the first half of the season opener against South Alabama, but in the second half he had 39 yards on six carries, along with a reception for 13 yards. In the next three games, Washington continued to produce. Against Colorado, Northern Illinois and Illinois, he had a combined 229 rushing yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, along with seven receptions for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
However, his production ended after that stretch. Washington was banged up against Ohio State, Northwestern and Minnesota, and had totaled just 43 yards on 19 touches across those three games. Heading into the matchup with Indiana, Washington was not listed on the depth chart and head coach Scott Frost said he would not be with the team for the immediate future. It is unclear whether Washington will return.
Nebraska’s most consistent back all year was Mills, a JUCO transfer who played at Georgia Tech in 2016. However, even he had ups and downs. In the first two games of the year, Mills averaged 2.95 yards per carry and lost a fumble. His two touchdowns in the first two games each came from 1-yard runs against South Alabama.
Then, Mills started producing more consistently in the next three games. Despite fumbling two more times, Mills totaled 228 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries, good for an average of 6.7 yards per carry. Before the Ohio State game, Mills carried a football around campus in an effort to fix his fumbling issues, and it paid off as he didn’t fumble for the rest of the season.
He started to struggle again after the Ohio State game, only managing 102 yards on 33 carries over the next four contests. He also never got over 10 touches in any of those games.
Mills ended the year strong, starting with a breakout performance against Wisconsin. Mills racked up 188 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, averaging over 11 yards every time he touched the ball. He ended the year continuing to grow into a role as the workhorse back, gaining 212 total yards and a touchdown on 42 touches in Nebraska’s final two games.
Robinson, Johnson and senior Wyatt Mazour also played a role at running back over the course of the year. Robinson split time at receiver and running back, but still had the second-most carries on the team among running backs. The true freshman made some explosive plays out of the backfield, including a 42-yard touchdown run against Northwestern, but proved to be more dangerous as a receiver. Robinson averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and had 113 more yards through the air. He also struggled with injuries down the stretch of the season, which derailed his production.
Johnson didn’t do much in his four games, and didn’t even receive a carry in two of his appearances. The bulk of his 64 rushing yards on 21 carries came against Maryland, where he had 18 rushes for 55 yards and a score. Despite an unimpressive statline, Johnson showed flashes of potential with a 13-yard run that set up a 1-yard touchdown run for him on the next play.
Mazour also failed to make a difference on the field for the Huskers in 2019, rushing for 74 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Coming into the Iowa game, he had 46 yards and no touchdowns on 14 carries, good for an average of 3.29 yards per carry. Mazour ended his Husker career with his best performance of the season against Iowa, taking seven carries for 28 yards and a touchdown.
Going into next season, Nebraska’s running back depth looks strong, but still has questions to answer. If Washington doesn’t return, whether or not Mills can continue his recent level of production as the feature back will be something to keep an eye on. Robinson will continue to get carries on occasion, but will likely be used more in the pass game.
Johnson and freshman Ronald Thompkins, who sat out in 2019 due to an injury suffered in high school, will both be redshirt freshmen next year and could see some more significant action as well in the backfield. On top of that, the Huskers will add a pair of 3-star running backs in Marvin Scott III and Sevion Morrison.
The 2020 running back depth chart won’t be set for a while, but Nebraska expressed confidence throughout the year that it can run the ball well no matter what.
“I’ve always had the philosophy [that] I don’t worry who I don’t have, I’m going to work with the guys that are in my room,” said running backs coach Ryan Held.
The Huskers will certainly have depth and talent at the running back position again next season, but consistency will be key throughout the year.