Nebraska Football: Changes Bo Pelini Must Make to Avoid Transfers

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Nebraska Football: Changes Bo Pelini Must Make to Avoid Transfers
Leon Halip/Getty Images

For Nebraska football fans, the announcement of Braylon Heard’s departure from the program was disappointing but not unfamiliar. Heard was the second four-star running back to leave the program in the last twelve months, preceded by Aaron Green’s departure and ultimate transfer to TCU in the spring of 2012.

Running back isn’t the only area where Nebraska has been shedding talent. In 2010, Nebraska had an impressive haul of offensive linemen and looked to have established depth and talent throughout the pipeline.

But over the last year, Nebraska saw both tackle Tyler Moore (transfer to Florida) and Ryan Klachko (transfer to Illinois) leave the program as well. And it wasn’t like the offensive line was a source of great depth for Nebraska in 2011.

At the end of the season, Nebraska was down to a rotation of three players—Brent Qvale, Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez—at tackle. And when starting center Justin Jackson was injured early in the Iowa game, Nebraska had to turn to an untested Mark Pelini because backup center Cole Pensick was too valuable at guard to move.

Now look, transfers happen. Major college programs like Nebraska should have competition for playing time, and that competition means those lower on the depth chart will be disappointed. And there is a good argument to be made for the proposition that if a kid isn’t willing to work and fight for playing time, it’s better for the team as a whole if that kid moves on rather than sulk in a puddle of his entitlement.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

But the fact remains that a football team invests resources in its players. During the recruiting season, the time and energy devoted to a particular prospect is time and energy that did not go to another area of recruiting. After a player joins the program, the team invests time and energy in helping the player to develop physically and mentally to help the team win.

So set aside your knee-jerk advice to kids looking at transferring to “suck it up and work harder.” It’s more complicated than that.

Let’s take a look at Heard’s case as an example (and no, not just because it made the bold prediction of a certain intelligent and particularly handsome analyst look foolish). Remember, after last season Heard moved to defensive back in part because of the logjam at running back with Green, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah at the position. Heard only moved back to running back after Green’s transfer—which was likely motivated by a lack of playing time as well.

Now, when news of Heard’s departure broke, Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald reported that Heard was asked to take some practice reps at wide receiver in the offseason. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Heard to question his role on the team.

But the unavoidable statistic is how carries were divided amongst the running backs. Here’s how the carries (taking quarterback Taylor Martinez out of the mix) broke down between Nebraska’s running backs.

2011

Player

Games Played

Carries

% of Carries

Rex Burkhead

13

283

75.6

Ameer Abdullah

13

42

11.2

Braylon Heard

7

25

6.7

Aaron Green

12

24

6.4

2012

Player

Games Played

Carries

% of carries

Ameer Abdullah

14

226

52.4

Rex Burkhead

8

98

22.7

Imani Cross

14

55

12.8

Braylon Heard

12

52

12.1

Eric Francis/Getty Images

In the last two years, when Tim Beck has been Nebraska’s offensive coordinator, a clear pattern has emerged that one back will become the workhorse and relegate the others to a minimal role. We’ve seen the effect, with Burkhead in 2011 and Abdullah in 2012, of those workhorse backs wearing down and being injured and less effective as the season wore on.

But less obviously, we are also seeing the effects of minimal carries on the backs down the depth chart. It’s hard not to conclude that Heard and Green looked at where they were on the depth chart, looked at how running backs were being used, and concluded they were not going to get a legitimate opportunity to see the field.

In Heard’s case, given that his yards-per-carry average was higher than Abdullah’s (6.69 to 5.03) and that Heard had zero fumbles to Abdullah’s eight, it’s not unfair for him to wonder about the distribution of carries.

The departures of Moore and Klachko could have similar reasons, although it’s harder to back up with statistics. There’s no question that Klachko saw little of the field, while Moore started as a true freshman but was pulled and saw little playing time after that.

So, does Bo Pelini need to re-think how he redshirts and uses younger players?

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Again, I’m sympathetic to the argument that players down on the depth chart should just shut up, buckle down and work harder. But the bottom line is that, in the last few months, Nebraska has lost four highly-recruited players. And don’t think that opposing coaches won’t be pointing out the exodus of talent against Nebraska. You can just hear Urban Meyer asking a kid why he’d want to go to Lincoln when the coaches there can’t find a way to get young talent on the field, can’t you?

Next year, Nebraska will have Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross returning at running back. Freshmen Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor, assuming they sign, will make Nebraska spoiled for choice at running back.

Sure, that’s a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem. And unless Pelini is wise about how he uses his redshirts and distributes his playing time, we may be having this same conversation about highly recruiting players leaving the program next year. And Meyer and the other BIG coaches will have that much more ammunition to use against Nebraska in recruiting.

If you’d like to contact Patrick to schedule an interview, provide feedback or get advice on which type of chocolate goes best with fresh fruit (spoiler alert: dark), send an e-mail to patrickrunge@gmail.com.

Or, you could always...Follow @patrickrunge.

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