ORLANDO, Fla. — Rex Burkhead stood just a few feet from the bus that would take him to his final trip home as a Nebraska football player, and you could tell it hurt that he knew it.
The Husker senior I-back had just run for 140 yards in a very Rex-like going-away performance. Put the final touches on a career that would leave him as the No. 5 all-time rusher in NU history.
But the “final” part obviously was starting to kick in after the Huskers' 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl on Tuesday.
“I thought Rex played really well,” NU assistant coach Ron Brown said. “But vintage Rex: He wants to win so bad that I know he's a little down right now. He didn't want to go out like this.”
Burkhead summed up his own thoughts in a quiet voice without letting his emotions run too wild. Through four special years as a Husker, he was never one to get too high or too low.
As he now heads out the door, Burkhead said, the Nebraska offense will be just fine with I-backs Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross.
“They're going to be very good, with all the guys that are returning,” Burkhead said. “It's going to be fun watching the other backs — Ameer, Braylon, Imani — developing even more and showcasing their skills. They definitely got a bright future ahead of them.”
And Brown said the same goes for Burkhead.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder from Plano, Texas, will turn to the next chapter of his football life after running for 3,329 yards and scoring 35 touchdowns (30 rushing) in four seasons at Nebraska, despite missing chunks of games as a freshman and senior. He will be full go for a college all-star game later this month and the NFL Combine in February.
Although Brown isn't sure where Burkhead might fit in the NFL draft in April, he believes that Burkhead will make some team very happy.
“I would be shocked if Rex Burkhead is not an outstanding NFL player,” Brown said. “Not just a good one, but an outstanding one.”
Brown said you saw some of the reasons why on Tuesday at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Burkhead came out of the backfield to make a tough 16-yard touchdown catch that gave the Huskers a halftime lead. He ran with authority or grace, depending on the situation, and added his usual blocking and leadership to the offensive effort.
“He does so many things well,” Brown said. “He's a guy who can run the ball inside or outside. He's got tremendous quickness, very powerful and just great hand-eye coordination. He'll be an excellent receiver and he'll be a good pass protector, and he'll be an excellent special teams guy.”
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Above all else, Brown said, Burkhead will be the good citizen and no-nonsense player for an organization, who has a way of inspiring those around him.
“Who wouldn't want a guy like that on his team?” Brown said.
Burkhead has an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, which is scheduled for Jan. 19 in St. Petersburg, Fla. He would change plans if he gets a call from the Senior Bowl, set for Jan. 26 in Mobile, Ala.
Then it's on to the NFL. Abdullah said Burkhead will be all the things there that he was for Nebraska, where Abdullah spent the past two seasons absorbing the senior's lessons.
“What he brings to a program, it's not just going to be his athleticism,” Abdullah said. “He's going to lift spirits in the locker room, he's going to keep grinding, he's going to be your hardest worker wherever he goes. That's what Rex has done. I really looked up to Rex.”
And whatever the NFL scouts decide to nitpick about his game, Abdullah said that will only inspire Burkhead to attack the perceived weakness. In its most recent update, NFLDraftScout.com lists Burkhead as the No. 15 back available when including four underclassmen expected to declare.
“The doubters are going to say what they want to say, but there's nothing I feel like Rex can't do,” Abdullah said.
Burkhead was one of the last finishing interviews Tuesday as the buses finished loading. They weren't going anywhere without him, of course, no matter how long he talked.
Burkhead said what he'll miss most is the time and the relationships with all those teammates. His message to Abdullah, Heard and Cross would be to not only enjoy it but make the most of their opportunities and “make the most of every single day” if they want to be great.
“I'm done playing at Nebraska,” he said, “and it goes quick.”
Before it ended, Burkhead came through with his 140 rushing yards (on 24 carries) and four receptions against Georgia, finally feeling good about the left knee that hampered him all season. Brown said he “ran like a warrior.”
He ran and competed like, well, himself.
“Rex played the way he always does,” NU head coach Bo Pelini said. “Like he did for four years — with passion.”
The guys watching from the bus windows wouldn't argue. At least a few had to be realizing that No. 22 had taken off his Husker uniform for the last time.
“I'm glad he got to play in his final game,” Abdullah said. “The year's been rough for him, but I'm sure you'll be seeing him in the future on Sundays.”
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