Nebraska Football: Breaking Down the Backfield If Rex Burkhead Can't Play
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One of the more intriguing sub-plots of the Big Ten season thus far is what's going to happen if Nebraska doesn't have its workhorse for any substantial amount of time. Rex Burkhead scorched Southern Miss on a 57-yard touchdown on his second carry of the game, but his third (a nine-yard carry) left him coming up lame with what would eventually be diagnosed as a sprained MCL.
Burkhead will likely make the trip to UCLA, but he's questionable as to whether he'll actually play; Nebraska probably won't decide before Friday at the earliest, and they have no incentive to decide earlier.
Nebraska's in a tricky situation here. Burkhead makes that offense go (Taylor Martinez's ridiculous 354-yard, five-TD performance against Southern Miss in Burkhead's absence aside), but the Huskers have a substantial amount of talent behind him. Then again, they're making a trip to a rather feisty UCLA team, and Nebraska could easily catch a loss there—especially if it's not putting the best team on the field.
So balancing the needs of performance and Burkhead's long-term durability is going to be Bo Pelini's primary challenge on Saturday. If Burkhead can't go, here's a look at the guys behind him.
Ameer Abdullah, 5'9", 185, Soph.: 15 carries, 81 yards
Abdullah was part of the Husker game plan from the get-go, seeing the bulk of the work on the second drive and leading the team in rushes with Burkhead on the sideline. That's a reprisal of his role of top backup of 2011, his freshman year, so no surprises there.
Abdullah looks more physically capable of playing tailback this season than last, when he still had the look of most 18-year-old speedsters. We even got to see Abdullah put in some work as a pass protector and he was better than we had feared after last year. He's no workhorse, but he's certainly no liability either.
Imani Cross, 6'1", 225, Fr.: 11 carries, 62 yards
Cross was technically the fifth back to see a carry in Nebraska's offense last week, but come the fourth quarter it was his job to kill the last 4:32 and he did so easily. Cross is probably the most physically talented back on the entire roster (which is an insane thing to think about for a true freshman playing for Nebraska) and he'll continue to be a hammer when Nebraska needs one.
Braylon Heard, 5'11, 185, Soph.: 3 carries, 34 yards, 1 TD
Heard got his first carry of the game on the same drive where Cross debuted for Nebraska, and Heard made the most of his by taking the ball in from 10 yards on a nifty run. He's been back and forth between I-back and corner during his young career, and while he's not about to start any games this year barring horrible disaster in front of him, Heard's making himself valuable all the same.
Mike Marrow, 6'2, 250, Jr.: 4 carries, 15 yards
Now, technically Marrow (a transfer from Eastern Michigan and before that Alabama) is a fullback, and his role is likely going to be limited to situational spot plays. But he's versatile enough that we could see him at I-back in certain big formations, and he was the first non-Rex Burkhead RB to run the ball on Saturday, picking up a first down on 3rd-and-1 on the third play of the game.
Marrow gained a first down on all four of his rushes on the day Saturday, as a matter of fact, and those rushes resulted in keeping three touchdown drives alive. The stat sheets won't note something like that. The Nebraska coaches absolutely will.
So with that, it looks as if Nebraska should be okay without Burkhead. But if UCLA comes out firing and Burkhead's cleared to go by doctors, Pelini may have no choice but to go back to his Superman.
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