LINCOLN — An Illinois defensive tackle who outweighed Ameer Abdullah by 100 pounds slammed into the Husker I-back at the line of scrimmage Saturday.
Wrapped up by the long arms of a 6-foot-2 run-stuffer, Abdullah had lost momentum, seemingly destined to get tossed to the turf by Illini junior Austin Teitsma.
But Abdullah didn't budge. The 5-9, 190-pounder restarted his legs, bulled through the bearhug and fell forward across the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown.
It all happened in an instant. And on a day when the junior from Homewood, Ala., ran for a career-high 225 yards, producing highlight-worthy runs that showcased his quickness and elusiveness, a rather routine-looking score from the end zone's doorstep doesn't tend to generate much buzz.
But that kind of run is what'll get the attention of opponents. It shows what can sometimes be overlooked: Abdullah's stronger than you think.
“He's a very powerful kid,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “He doesn't go down easy.”
Add that to the list of strengths Abdullah has cultivated since setting foot in Lincoln two years ago.
This season, the work is paying off. His 138 rushing yards per game rank ninth nationally and second in the Big Ten. He has more yards on the ground (690) through five games than any Husker I-back since Ahman Green in 1997.
Abdullah downplays it all.
Before he'll discuss the unexpected jump cut that shocked the defense and took him out of harm's way, he compliments the fullbacks, linemen and receivers who gave him room to operate. Ask him about his ability to read blockers and cut upfield at the right time on stretch plays — like the one he took for 30 yards Saturday — and he'll insist he still doesn't recognize lanes properly. Sometimes he's not patient enough. Other times he'd like to be more decisive.
Abdullah watches film of NFL backs like Warrick Dunn and Frank Gore to remind himself of the high standard he's trying to reach.
“You should never leave the field without working on an element of your game that you feel like you need to improve.” That's the Abdullah way.
Perhaps it's why teammates and coaches don't hesitate with their praise.
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Said coach Bo Pelini: “I'm not comparing him to Barry Sanders. I'm not. But the way he can put his foot in the ground. ... He has that — where he'll be going forward, next thing you know he's going east-west and creating space.”
Junior Kenny Bell was watching ESPN's “College Football Live” a couple of weeks ago, and analysts said Georgia's Todd Gurley runs like “someone's trying to take his wallet and he's mad at him.” Bell heard that and something clicked. That's Abdullah. “He runs angry, like he wants to hurt people.”
Said Quincy Enunwa: “He's a shifty back. He's also powerful. Explosive. You have to be on your toes because you never know which way he's going to go.”
Redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine knows that all too well. He and his defensive line buddies joked on the sideline Saturday that they could relate to the Illini, whose arm-tackle attempts and hapless dives at Abdullah's ankles barely slowed him. Valentine learned the hard way last spring.
“He shook me up a little bit,” Valentine said. “But what can you do? He's small, elusive. You drop your weight and you try to get him, but he's shifty, man.”
But back to that power.
It only seems to amplify Abdullah's quickness.
He benches more than 350 pounds and squats more than 560 — he was the team's co-lifter of the year in 2012. Of Abdullah's 820 total rushing and receiving yards this year, 392 have come after contact, Brown said.
Last season, the coach noticed that many defenses were lining up their D-ends wide of the tackles and tight ends, in an attempt to “force everything into a box.”
Abdullah won't mind if he gets that invitation to run up the gut. He might just end up bouncing it outside, anyway.
Saturday against Illinois showed how versatile he can be, Brown said.
“I've seen the flashes of it all,” the coach said. “But I thought he really put a lot together.”
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