Monday, January 26, 2009

2009 Nebraska football position outlook: Running back

One story in a Wine Country Husker series, looking at position breakdowns for the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the 2009 season. Today, we look at running back – and fullback:

Looking back: Coming into the season, the Huskers had what looked like an embarrassment of riches at running back with all key components returning. In fact, Nebraska was so deep that it decided to keep Major Culbert at safety and converted Cody Glenn to linebacker. That’s not even taking into account that one-time highly touted recruit Kenny Wilson has become a glorified grad assistant. And still, Nebraska had three running backs that the coaches needed time to figure out on dividing carries.

The Huskers depth at this position was viewed as a good thing because the team was going to re-emphasize being a physical running team. Nebraska became a more proficient running team improving its per game average from 144.4 yards per game in 2007 to 169.8 in 2008. Granted, the Huskers spent less time playing from behind in ’08 but they were also more committed to the ground attack when it wasn’t working.

Nebraska had to make a few adjustments, however, in “how” it would gain yardage. The first four and a half games were spent with Thomas Lawson at fullback with Marlon Lucky, Quentin Castille and Roy Helu dotting the I-formation but the days of churning out 300-yard rushing games were still a thing of the past.

There was actually some good, however, that came out of the 52-17 home loss to Missouri in Game Five. In the midst of that embarrassment offensive coordinator Shawn Watson adjusted by junking the “heavy sets” and experimented with the running backs operating out of the “spread formation.” From there, the Huskers became a ball control offense in improving their average time of possession from 29:14 in 2007 to 34:01 in 2008 to help a still developing defense.

Lucky, Castille and Helu played running back roulette but it was Helu who made his by season’s end while Lucky was limited by a turf toe injury and Castille continued to have issues with fumblitis.

Helu, who enters his junior season, led the team with 803 yards rushing on 125 carries and seven touchdowns. He also caught 25 passes for 266 yards. Helu topped the century mark in three of his last four regular season games before being slowed by an injury in Nebraska’s 26-21 Gator Bowl win over Clemson. On that day, it was Castille that stole the show with 125 yards on 18 carries but most importantly – no fumbles.

On another front, Husker fans longed for the return of the fullback being a key ball-carrier. Something that became a lost art in Bill Callahan’s four seasons as head coach. Lawson saw a lot of action early but not much later as Nebraska used more one-back sets later in the season.

Looking ahead: The Huskers could essentially face the same issue in 2009 as they did in 2009 – dividing the carries. After all, Lucky is the only loss of note but given how he was a non-entity by season’s end, that might not be an issue.

The only thing that might not be different is converting two running backs to defense because Nebraska will have more viable solutions that are more developed on that side of the ball.
Helu and Castille are a potentially good “thunder and lightning” backfield. Helu is a slasher that can get seven yards even if the blocking scheme only allows for three.

Castille is his generations’ Dan Alexander, tough runner and can break tackles but can he consistently protect the ball.

Then there’s Marcus Mendoza, who is blessed with speed but will have to show better ball security to get a regular amount of carries. Then there’s redshirt freshman Collins Okafor? Given the Huskers depth at running back they have the luxury of bring him along slowly.

What happens with the fullback position? There are two youngsters named Makovicka (Justin and Jordan) on the roster so the era of the fullback can’t be totally dead. Bo Pelini likes an I-formation running attack but with the Huskers success out of the spread, is he convinced that scheme is the long term solution?

The Huskers do not necessarily need to make a fulltime commitment to the Spread because last season Nebraska’s running game resembled the Spread but the passing game still had the West Coast Offense elements.

My early money is on Helu to be the main ball-carrier but the fullback position won’t go the way of the dinosaur. This is Nebraska.

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