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Coaches Search for Complete Running Back

Ryan Held inherits running backs who are eager for a fresh start, ready for an opportunity to flourish and make their names known in an up-tempo offense new head coach Scott Frost brings to Lincoln.

It’s the same offense that last year showcased the talents of Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson at Central Florida, and before that, helped make big-time players out of LeGarrett Blount, LaMichael James and Royce Freeman at Oregon.

So, who shines the brightest at running back for Nebraska, be it this season, or further in the future, or both?

That’s what Held, in his first season as running backs coach at Nebraska, aims to discover when spring practices begin in earnest next week.

Held, who played at Nebraska as a walk-on with Frost, has been a part of Frost’s offense for two seasons at Central Florida. He knows he needs a running back “who can do a multiplicity of things” and help put defenses in compromising positions.

Nebraska held one spring practice last week, which allowed coaches and players to meet the entire week. Held, obviously, still has much to learn about his room, but last week gave him a closer look than he’s had to this point.

“I think they all have good attitudes,” Held said of his running backs. “I think they like the opportunity to have a fresh start. They worked hard in the offseason. It’s a very strong group, especially my two seniors, Devine (Ozigbo) and (Mikale) Wilbon. They’re just physically strong.

“Every one of them has worked hard, from top to bottom. We have really good walk-ons. Wyatt (Mazour) and (Austin) Rose are really good players as well. I think (junior college transfer) Greg Bell is getting accustomed to being a Division I athlete, Jaylin Bradley is getting better every day.”

Tre Bryant, meanwhile, continues his recovery from a knee injury. Frost said the sophomore, who rushed for 299 yards in two games before being sidelined the remainder of the season, could be back this spring but limited in some capacity.

“I like them,” Held said. “They’re learning it. I think they want to be great.”

Come fall, true freshman Maurice Washington joins the fray. He committed to the Huskers on signing day in February, and not only does he fit the part from a physical standpoint, he also has “some dog in him,” Held said.

In other words, Washington is a competitor.

“He’s the guy who’s got his cleats in his car,” Held said, “you call him out at Applebee’s and say, ‘You can’t run a route on me,’ he’s going to take the cleats in the parking lot and go against you.

“From a running back standpoint, he’s a guy who can run and make people miss. He fits us. He fits what we do.”

Fit, more than anything, is what Held wants in a running back. Just because an I-formation back who runs downhill and holds offers from the likes of Alabama and Georgia doesn’t mean he’d be a good fit at Nebraska.

With Frost’s offense depending so much on tempo and formation and keeping defenses on their heels, running backs will often be left alone in space with an opportunity to make only one defender miss to produce a big play.

“I’ve got to have a guy who can really run, a guy who can make people miss,” Held said. “I can’t just have a straight-line guy who runs people over. You have to have an element of elusiveness. Now, there’s different levels of that, but I’ve got to have a guy who doesn’t have to stop his feet to make a move. He can make a move going 100 miles an hour.”

Held also needs a running back who can catch and run routes and help create matchup problems. He beams with pride when explaining how UCF’s rival, South Florida, needed to remove its two senior linebackers and insert defensive backs in the middle of the field because the base defense wasn’t able to stop Anderson and Killins.

“We dictate what you’re going to do,” Held said, “not you’re dictating to what we’re doing.”

That style made a name for the aforementioned running backs at Oregon, where Frost served as an assistant offensive coach, and then offensive coordinator.

“There’s a great opportunity here for running backs, today and in the future,” Frost said. “We’ll let those guys battle it out and determine who the best guy is and see if we can fix the 1,000-yard problem.”

Nebraska not only didn’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher last season (Ozigbo had a team-best 493 yards), it didn’t surpass that number as a team by a large margin. The Huskers ran for 1,290 yards, their lowest total since 1951, when they ran for 1,287 yards, but in only 10 games.

That makes last year’s 12-game average of 107.5 rushing yards the lowest per-game average since the 2005 team averaged 96 rushing yards per game.

“Our offense is always going to be committed to the run first. To varying degrees, we’ve thrown it and run it, depending on our talent,” Frost said. “But we can’t go as an offense, and really no offense can go, if we can’t establish the run.”

Held also seeks a player who’s unselfish, who has a good charisma about him, who’s a good teammate and somebody who’s going to be a good special teams player.

“If you can’t play special teams, you can’t play running back,” Held said. “Now, we’re going to be smart. We’re not going to kill a guy. But you’ve got to be able to help this football team on special teams.”

The idea behind finding and playing a complete running back would, ideally, eliminate the need for a specialty back, such as a short-yardage or goal-line back.

“We want a guy who can do it all to where I really don’t have to substitute in any strategic situation,” Held said. “We might want to go tempo, we might want to go fast, and we can’t substitute if we’re going fast.”

And as much love as Held has for the fullback – remember, he played here in the 1990s  and was a part of two national championship teams – it’s not a position fans will see as part of this offense. Rather, coaches will use big, long tight ends who can run and split out and essentially serve the same purpose.

“Trust me, I love the fullback position,” Held said. “It’s just not what we do.”

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Held played at Nebraska when Frank Solich served as running backs coach under coach Tom Osborne.

“To have the position that he coached is special,” he said of Solich. “I take a lot of pride in that. It’s a very meaningful deal to me.

“I’m never going to take this job, a day of this job, for granted. I feel blessed and fortunate to have it. I have an obligation to hold my end of the bargain and get that running back position as efficient and execute as a high level as we can based on the kids that we have.”

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