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LINCOLN — Dedrick Mills will be the “bell cow” of Nebraska’s backfield, running backs coach Ryan Held told reporters Thursday.
That’s not a big secret, of course. Mills led the Huskers with 745 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and the four scholarship running backs behind him are all freshmen. Held, talking to the media for the time since last March, reiterated, though, that the Huskers will lean heavily on the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Mills.
“I expect a big senior year for him,” Held said. “He’s going to have to carry a good amount of reps for us. He’s done really well up to this point, and I know he’s excited to keep better and getting ready for the first game.”
Held’s task is to figure out which running backs go onto the field when Mills leaves it. Echoing boss Scott Frost — who said on his monthly radio show that Nebraska must decide soon who the Nos. 2 and 3 backs will be — Held said he likes the depth of his room, enough that one of last year’s top running backs, Wan’Dale Robinson, will get to focus on slot receiver, the position NU recruited him for.
Redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson “had to be on call” last season because of various injuries and suspensions, but NU was able to salvage his redshirt by limiting him to four games in 2019. Johnson has put on 10 pounds to be able to handle the Big Ten wear and tear.
“He brings a nice speed factor to it,” Held said of the 5-10, 180-pound Johnson. “He’s a guy who can run and give us a threat that can be a big-play capability. But he needs to continue to keep working and grinding and figuring out where the cuts are going to be and his footwork and fighting through when he’s tired, just like everybody else.”
Fellow redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins has been limited since his arrival at NU by knee ailments, most of which stem from ACL tears in high school.
The 5-11, 195-pound Thompkins was “as talented as anyone in America coming out of high school,” Held said, and has “done a good job mentally” of working through two knee injuries in high school and another knee surgery in college. Held said Nebraska has to be “smart” with Thompkins’ load in games and practices, but he should be able to help the Huskers this season.
“He’s relied on his perseverance,” Held said. “He’s had good days and bad days, just like anybody going through that process, but I’ve been very impressed with him. He’s had a really good attitude, and there’s a motivational aspect of it that we have to do, talking on a day-to-day basis. He’s done a really good job mentally, because there have been times, obviously, he hasn’t been able to do things physically.”
Freshman Marvin Scott (5-9, 200 pounds) looks like a “senior in a freshman’s body” because of his muscles. Scott was a champion powerlifter in high school.
“He’s paid the price in the weight room and put himself in a position physically,” Held said. “The biggest deal with him, I just have to keep getting him going from a mental standpoint and footwork, because we have a lot of footwork in our running game.”
Another true freshman, Sevion Morrison, is in a similar boat to Scott.
“He has a really bright future,” Held said of the 6-foot, 200-pounder.
Held said Elkhorn South walk-on redshirt freshman Cooper Jewett has caught his eye, too.
“He’s done a lot of really good things,” Held said. “He can run, he’s got really great feet, can run routes. So he’s done a really good job as a walk-on kid.”
Jewett rushed for 1,074 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior after spending the majority of his high school career as a backup to former Husker walk-on Moses Bryant. Jewett had a big Shrine Bowl, rushing for 50 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
In total, Held said, the depth in his room excites him. He’ll need it, too, he said, in case Mills or another other back goes down with an injury or a positive COVID-19 test, which will keep players out a minimum of 21 days.
“You’d better have a fully loaded room because you just don’t know what’s going to happen with everything going on,” Held said. “It’s next man up. One minute, you might have a full room, the next minute, you might have two guys in the room. It’s all hands on deck. You’re never going to feel comfortable this year.”