Last season, Nebraska had a problem. The Cornhuskers had three talented freshman running backs, but the coaches could not decide who would be the primary backup to starting running back Rex Burkhead. Ameer Abdullah, Aaron Green and Braylon Heard all competed for playing time.
As the season went on, it became obvious that Abdullah was the backup the coaches had chosen, and Green and Heard saw less playing time. Though they were the backups, none of them finished the season with great yardage, as Abdullah finished with 150 yards, Heard with 114 and Green with 105.
Going into this season, Burkhead is obviously the starter, with Abdullah as his backup and a fullback battle that has yet to be finalized between Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer. The only other running back on scholarship is recruit Imani Cross.
This leads to a question: With Abdullah as the only clear backup, can he have a breakout year?
Abdullah has already flirted with a season as a breakout star. In just the second game of the season he took a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Abdullah finished 41st in the nation in kick return yardage, even after teams started to kick away from him to avoid his return threat. However, the NCAA changed the kickoff rules to avoid concussions and other injuries in kickoffs, which severely limits the chances and impact of kickoff returners.
When it came to rushing, Abdullah picked up much less yardage. His best game was only 36 yards against Wyoming and 12 carries against Iowa. Though he did have great moments, like the triple-option against Michigan, he also had bad moments, like the huge fumble against South Carolina.
If you add the total number of carries by all three freshman (91) in 2011, they are only 32 percent of Burkhead's 284 carries. It seemed like the coaches were hesitant at times to put in the freshman running backs. However, Tim Beck has promised to change that by pulling Burkhead at times when he is banged up or when the game is sealed, instead of having him carry 30-plus times.
If this is true, Abdullah could be in line for a breakout year. He has the speed and agility, and at times he showed he can break tackles and drag defenders for extra yards. Abdullah can provide a switch from Burkhead, who has speed but is more of a short-yardage back who busts through the lines and plows over linebackers, whereas Abdullah is a back who beats defenders with his speed. Used correctly, Abdullah can provide a great mismatch against defenders.
Whether Abdullah can have a breakout year, however, depends on whether the coaches use him, but there is a similar example we can use to guess Abdullah's breakout. In 2009, Burkhead backed up Roy Helu with a crowded backfield and in 2010 became the primary backup and almost rushed for 1,000 yards.
If used properly, Abdullah could have a similar breakout and might be the next great Nebraska running back.