Next year’s Nebraska football team will face life without Rex Burkhead, its talisman running back. The loss of Burkhead to graduation will be a challenge head coach Bo Pelini has to face, but he does have some options going forward.
Nebraska has faced life without Burkhead already
In the 2012 season opener against Southern Mississippi, Burkhead injured his knee. That injury haunted Burkhead, and Nebraska, throughout the season. Burkhead missed six games entirely and had limited participation in three more.
So Nebraska had some practice, unwanted though it might have been, in dealing with life without Burkhead.
Abdullah proved a legitimate feature back
With Burkhead’s injury, sophomore Ameer Abdullah stepped in and carried the load for Nebraska at I-back. Abdullah ended the season with 1,089 yards on 219 carries, averaging 4.97 yards per carry. He also caught 24 passes for 178 yards and scored ten total touchdowns on the season.
Abdullah’s 219 carries this season were significantly lower than Burkhead’s last year (283), but his yards-per-carry average in 2012 was actually higher than Burkhead’s in 2011 (4.80).
Of course, Taylor Martinez contributed as well, with 175 carries for 973 yards and ten touchdowns.
And even with a limited Burkhead, Nebraska was still had the eighth-best rushing attack in the nation, averaging 254.46 yards per game. So with Abdullah leading the way at I-back, Nebraska’s rushing attack looked to be pretty solid.
Heard looks to make a big impact
After spending all that time praising Abdullah, the next thing I have to say may sound a little strange. Stick with me on this one.
Abdullah will not be Nebraska’s starting I-back next season.
As 2012 wore on, Braylon Heard started to see a little more of the field. And when he did, he was electric. He racked up 343 yards on 51 carries, for a 6.73 yards-per-carry average, looking decisive and fast when carrying the ball.
Yes, in fairness, most of those carries were late in games against tired defenses. But Heard still stood out whenever given the opportunity to carry the ball.
And remember, Heard didn’t have a full offseason of practice at I-back. Seeing a congestion at the position, Heard moved to defensive back in an attempt to get more playing time after last season. It was only when RB Aaron Green transferred that Heard came back to the offense.
So, given what we saw from Heard this season, and given that he will have a full offseason of work as an I-back, I’m planting my flag now that (barring injury, of course) Heard will emerge as Nebraska’s starter.
I’d like to say that the starting I-back role won’t mean as much, and that Nebraska will rotate players in to the position more frequently. But history has taught us that’s simply not going to happen. In 2011, Nebraska ran Burkhead into the ground, even with three talented—but young—running backs behind him. In 2012, even after Burkhead’s injury, Abdullah got the lion’s share of Nebraska’s carries.
Given that history, it’s fair to assume that whoever does win the starter’s job for 2013 will also be given the bulk of the carries. I think it will be Heard.
Nebraska’s running back depth is strong
Most programs would be happy with a running-back stable of Abdullah and Heard. But Nebraska is blessed with an even deeper bench. As a true freshman, Imani Cross saw the field quite a bit. He became a mainstay in goal-line and short-yardage formations and saw the field a little during garbage time of the B1G title game.
So, how will Nebraska's running game fare after Burkhead's graduation?
Nebraska also has a commitment from Adam Taylor, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound running back out of Katy, TX. Given Nebraska’s current depth, it has the luxury of redshirting for Taylor, although NU hasn’t been shy about burning freshman redshirts for a small number of carries (see Green, Aaron).
Burkhead is a tremendous talent, and Nebraska’s 2012 season was spoiled to a degree because of his injuries.
But while depth is a huge issue along the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska has developed enough running back depth that the position should be a strength for NU in 2013, even after Burkhead’s departure.
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