There was no question in 2011 that the MVP of the Nebraska offense was RB Rex Burkhead, an irrepressible workhorse and the third-leading rusher in the Big Ten. It's tough to imagine where the Huskers would have been without Burkhead in the backfield last year, but it wouldn't have been where they wanted to be.
So when he went down with a sprained MCL after just three rushes against Southern Miss in Week 1, the onus was suddenly on the rest of the Nebraska backfield to keep the ball rolling.
Who will lead Nebraska in rushes in 2013?
And if the Huskers' performance against Arkansas State was any indication, Burkhead doesn't need to hurry back from that knee injury after all.
Nebraska rushed for 347 yards in its 42-13 win over Arkansas State, and its running backs combined for 48 rushes for 293 yards in the easy victory, one that was marked primarily by Bo Pelini's hospitalization at halftime (he'll be fine, don't worry).
Sure, it was just Arkansas State, but that looked like a backfield that was capable of dominating the Big Ten even without Burkhead.
Ameer Abdullah had the most impressive game of his career, not only statistically speaking (30 rushes, 167 yards, 2 TDs, all career highs) but in the way he rushed the ball. Abdullah initiated contact, broke tackles and, above all else, looked like a feature back for the first time.
Moreover, 30 carries isn't just a statistic—it's a heck of a workload for one day. And Abdullah looked just as strong at the end of it all as he did in the first quarter.
Burkhead isn't going to be gone much longer this season, but it'll come time to pick a primary back for 2013 soon, and Abdullah just might have sealed that decision already.
Abdullah wasn't perfect, though. He doesn't have that nose for the first-down line or goal line that you see from great backs—yet, anyway. Fortunately, Nebraska also has bigger backs Braylon Heard and Imani Cross, and they too looked remarkably impressive on Saturday.
Heard rushed for 54 yards on 10 carries, though his poor execution of a play fake caused a fumble in the third quarter, Nebraska's second turnover of the day. He ran strong, though, and he could easily push Abdullah for playing time this year and beyond.
But the real standout behind Abdullah was Imani Cross. The true freshman is physically ready to start taking 20 carries a game right now, even as it's extremely unlikely that Nebraska will need that this season. He was decisive on the goal line on his 2-yard scoring run, which came after Abdullah struggled and failed to punch the ball in, and he showed off high-level speed on a 44-yard rush later in the game.
He finished with seven rushes for 66 yards and a score, pushing his season totals to 18 rushes, 128 yards (more than 7.0 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. That is Nebraska's fourth-string tailback with Burkhead healthy.
Now, yes, Nebraska was only playing Arkansas State, a Sun Belt team. And, yes, whipping a Sun Belt team on the ground is not the same as whipping a Big Ten team.
But whipping lesser opponents is exactly what great Big Ten teams are supposed to do. That Nebraska was able to do so with Burkhead standing on the sidelines means the Husker backfield is absolutely loaded—for this season and for years to come.