LINCOLN — Omaha North running back Calvin Strong has been sharp on any stage in Nebraska high school football. Over at Nile Kinnick Stadium. The big game in Grand Island.
But after North's 23-21 win over Omaha Westside in the Class A state title game Tuesday night — after Strong had toted the ball 39 times for 197 yards — he admitted a particular affinity for Memorial Stadium.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Strong said as teammates celebrated with Viking fans behind him. “I love Nebraska. It's always good to come back to Memorial Stadium. It's the atmosphere with our fans in it. And to get to play on this field, it's a really, really good feeling.”
It took one 67-yard touchdown run for Strong to return those good feelings to the crowd.
On North's second offensive play — Strong's second carry — he took a handoff, cut hard to his left, bounced to open space and took off. The finishing speed that's sometimes in question with Strong found its final gear quickly. The Vikings and Warriors played a tight game until the end, but Strong's run was that first-quarter, highlight-reel run you'll remember. It'll get a little longer and Strong will get a little faster as the years go on.
It was impressive enough to make you wonder whether Strong will be making weekly appearances on Tom Osborne Field as a Husker running back. 247Sports already has Strong rated as a high three-star back. I suspect many schools are waiting to see if NU pulls the offer trigger soon or makes it worth their while to recruit Strong because NU's not ready. Strong saw some Husker players in the stands — and, in the case of former Westside quarterback Ron Kellogg, on the field — which he liked. But Strong does not have an NU offer yet. Does he think he'll get one soon?
“Hopefully,” he said.
I've long advocated homegrown offensive and defensive linemen. To me, the big guys are a no-brainer. Ninety-five percent of high school linemen need years of development anyway. Toughness, want-to and enthusiasm are big factors in line play, and in-state kids come with a built-in, burning pilot light. Junior North guard Michael Decker? Offer now. He's agile, strong and he consistently finds his targets. Sometimes he'll get two guys on one play. Decker won't be the last good guard North's I-formation attack produces, either.
Skill players are trickier. Nebraska always has had — and always should have — elite standards for its running backs and quarterbacks. A high two-star/low three-star homegrown interior lineman belongs in Lincoln because ratings on many linemen are inexact to the point of being bogus. But an in-state running back had better look at what Rex Burkhead or Ameer Abdullah do with a level gaze and say 'I can do that.' Because he's going to have to do what they do or he isn't going to play much. Ask Aaron Green and Braylon Heard.
Strong appears up for it. He has a fun personality, wants the ball, fits into tight spaces, and he's tough. He played through a toe injury Tuesday night that hurt enough that he didn't score the game-winning touchdown. He had an early fourth-and-short run that, other than the 67-yarder, was his best run of the night. He hit the hole hard, took on contact and spun forward for the first down. Great backs get three when they need two. Strong has the toughness quotient.
Is he fast enough? The Huskers have a 2014 commit in Larenzo Stewart who's among the fastest sprinters in Texas. He's a little shorter and lighter than Strong, but they're both playing a similar position in NU's offense. How does Strong compare?
I'd say favorably. Strong's balance and lower body strength are impressive. He's doesn't hit a sideline and start the sprinter's high-knee run, but he has acceleration. And he doesn't lose much speed when he changes direction. That agility is helpful in an era when even college safeties think good tackling form is to fly at someone like a one-armed couch.
He'll have to improve as a north-south runner, but Strong's made some strides there. I think he'll make more.
Nebraska will also have to consider the message it sends to Omaha schools if Strong gets an offer. That's not a small thing, and it can create surprising momentum. The Huskers had an incredible run of Omaha-area backs in the 1980s and 1990s, and while the credit goes to the players and their parents, that pipeline wasn't necessarily by accident.
Carrying the ball at Nebraska — even more than playing quarterback — earns a certain kind of respect from the fan base. Local kids want to be a part of that respect, and that respect trickles down to kids in middle school and youth leagues.
Strong had the ball, and the eyes of the whole crowd at Memorial Stadium. He had a pretty great Tuesday night. He could have some good Saturdays in Lincoln, too.