When Ryan Held played for Nebraska as a walk-on in the 1990s, he witnessed the likes of Ahman Green, Lawrence Phillips and Damon Benning dashing 50, 60 yards and into the end zone.
While fans remember that happening in games, Held was actually referring to practices, when Nebraska running backs finished plays the length of the field, no matter the circumstances. Coaches trained them to do so.
Some of the reasoning was for conditioning. Most of it was to create a mindset of producing big runs.
Held, who’s returned to Lincoln under first-year head coach Scott Frost as running backs coach, is instilling that same philosophy with his running backs.
“It’s how you practice,” Held said Thursday after Nebraska’s third spring practice. “We’re working on all the time finishing, working to the next level, making a safety miss and bursting and working on running to the end zone and scoring touchdowns.
“It becomes a habit, it becomes a mindset, so then those 4-yard runs that were happening last year become 25-yard runs, because you’re used to, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be done, even if it’s clogged up or whatever.’ We’ve got to train our bodies to where we’re trying to make big plays all the time.”
Held is trying to change the culture to help Nebraska running backs produce more big plays. Last season, the longest run by a running back was a mere 35 yards, by Tre Bryant, who played only the first two games before suffering a knee injury. Devine Ozigbo’s longest run was 28 yards. Mikale Wilbon’s longest run was 23 yards.
Bryant is still sidelined while continuing rehabilitation, but Ozigbo and Wilbon are getting plenty of runs in during practice. That, combined with a new offseason conditioning program, is why Held’s group, as a whole, has slimmed up and sped up.
“They worked hard in the offseason,” Held said. “They trimmed their bodies up. They’re strong.”
Ozigbo, in particular, looks noticeably slimmer and faster. Strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval declined to give specific numbers on Ozigbo’s progress, but Held confirmed “it’s quite a significant number.”
Sophomore Jaylin Bradley (pictured above) and walk-ons Wyatt Mazour and Austin Rose join junior college transferGreg Bell as running backs hoping to stand out this spring. Freshman Maurice Washington joins the fray in the fall.
Given the tempo of Frost’s offense and the staff’s penchant for mixing and matching and finding different roles, more than one or two running backs will likely find action in any given game.
“But again, it comes down to production, obviously,” Held said. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll go with the hot hand and the guys who are producing. But right now, I think they can fit in this offense. I really believe that at this point.
“Now, there’s a lot left. It’s open competition. We don’t play Akron for a while. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing and giving guys chances.”
Whichever player earns the starting nod won’t necessarily see the bulk of the action.
“There will be a guy who has to trot out there first, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get a majority of the plays,” Held said. “It depends on the different personnel groupings we come up with.”
Held said incoming freshman Miles Jones, currently listed as an athlete, could fit the mold of the “Duck-R’ spot, too.
“We’ll play a variety of guys, because hopefully we’ll play fast and we want guys to be fresh,” he said. “You want guys to get into a rhythm, too, so there’s feeling that out. Some of the times it’s just a gut feel, too.
“But at the end of the day, I’ve got four or five guys I feel comfortable and they can go in there and execute and do some things for us.”
All of the running backs excel at catching the football, Held said, which is good, given they’ll have ample one-on-one matchups with linebackers in play-action plays that can serve as a weapon. Held singled out Ozigbo.
“I tell you what, he’s got great hands,” he said. “He made a catch today, I mean, it was like last-second instinct, behind him.”
Thursday’s practice was Nebraska’s first in full pads this spring, and offensive coordinator Troy Walters said the defense had the upper hand, that the offense was sloppy at times. Part of that, he said, probably resulted from a day of heavy installation, although Walters didn’t want to use that as an excuse.
Held said the running backs, in particular, are still adjusting to the tempo, feeling their way through and learning while having many plays thrown at them with the quick installation.
“They’re drowning right now, a little bit,” Held said. “That was our philosophy, though. We want to give them a lot, so they learn it, we’ve introduced it, and then as spring ball gets going more, and then it subsides with the install, then we can keep really getting better.
“Right now, there’s just a lot going at them, and there’s a lot of details within each play where it’s hard to get to where it’s a perfectly executed play right now, because we just put pads on today, and there’s just so much thrown at them.”
Held said he watched only a handful of plays from last season because he wanted to give his running backs a fair, clean slate this spring.
“What I’ve seen is guys have worked hard in the weight room, they’ve trimmed their bodies down and they’re working hard on the practice field,” Held said. “We’re asking them to do something different than they were asked to do last year. Until I see anything differently, I’m going to give each one of these guys a fair chance.
“I think they’re good football players. It wasn’t productive last year, but they can be productive this year. I believe they can get it done.”