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Which of Nebraska’s Running Backs Makes An Impact This Spring?

Nebraska running backs

On Monday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers had their first Spring practice under new leadership. For head coach Matt Rhule, it still is a work in progress. This is due to his emphasis on  “establishing standards” for what he wants his team to look like in Spring practice. The Nebraska running backs are going to play a critical role in any turnaround of the program. But running backs coach EJ Barthel has only coached at a small program in UCONN. Does this mean that he is qualified enough to coach the stable of veterans that are at his disposal? We answer those questions and more in our Spring breakdown of Nebraska’s running back position.

Read more about Matt Rhule here:

A Look at Nebraska’s Veteran Running Backs in 2023

The Cornhuskers were loaded at running back in 2022.  Junior running back Anthony Grant became a fixture in Scott Frost’s offense when he ran for 915 yards and amassed six touchdowns on the ground. Freshman Ajay Allen also proved himself as a dependable running back when he carried the ball 33 times for 190 yards. In each of his four games as a redshirt, Allen scored four touchdowns last year. We could have seen more, but the Georgia native went down with a season-ending injury near the beginning of the season. According to Rhule,  Grant is suspended indefinitely due to academic issues.  The Cornhuskers would count on Jaquez Yant and Markese Stepp to shore up depth at the position. However, both players have left the program. This means that Gabe Ervin may make a jump into the starting lineup this season.

Gabe Ervin’s Struggles as a Husker

Based on his status as a recruit,  Ervin could have been a star. While he did enough to beat out several of  Nebraska’s veteran running backs as a freshman, he would only play in a handful of games for the Cornhuskers. He had a promising start to his career against Buffalo when he scored two touchdowns in the first half.  However,  something happened after that that kept him off the field.  Ervin would only carry the ball 10 times for 56 yards.  In the next game against Oklahoma, his season was derailed when he suffered an injury that sidelined him for the rest of 2021. But he actually came back stronger. In the third game of 2022 against the same opponent, he led all Cornhusker backs with a 60-yard rushing performance. However, this was all in vain. This is because he would suffer a knee injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season.

What Rahmir Johnson Brings To The Table

Now as we turn the corner into 2023, it is smooth sailing for Ervin. After a strong offseason, he believes that this is the best he has ever felt as a veteran. While he is still battling his knee injury that he suffered last season, he feels, “Bigger and more explosive,”
than in previous seasons with the team. Because of this change, he says he is eager to do some damage this year in Rhule’s new offense. But the question will be if Rahmir Johnson can pose enough of a challenge for Ervin’s attitude to change. As of now, it seems like he will be a viable option for the Cornhuskers as he has the most experience as a starter. Look no further than his electric performance against Michigan State in 2021. This game saw him total 100 all-purpose yards with a total of 19 carries and 76 yards. Against in-state rival Michigan, he had a career-high 172 all-purpose yards along with a touchdown catch. Can he succeed with a stable of Nebraska’s best running backs behind him?

A New Style of Play

While Barthel may be partial to  Johnson, Rhule is not ready to name the leader of the room just yet. In fact, the battle for starter is far from over. This is due to Gabe Ervin’s spectacular off-season. On the way to becoming one of the early favorites  in the Cornhusker’s position group, Rhule also likes that  he is, “One of the fastest guys on the team at 225 pounds.” But what makes him a truly special back is the ability to switch running styles. This is demonstrated by his bruising style of play which makes him hard to tackle. Because of these two aspects, the head coach wants him to become a battering ram that can wear down teams in the fourth quarter.

As part of Rhule’s philosophy, the new-look Cornhuskers are always going to preach a fourth-quarter shutout. But in order for him to execute this properly, the offense has to have a solid rushing attack to finish out the game. On the other hand, Ervin also knows that he can succeed in multiple points throughout the offense. This can be demonstrated in his ability to go downhill as a running back, or as a receiver splitting out wide and running a go-route.  It really doesn’t matter for Ervin, because he wants to do what the coaches tell him.



Nebraska running backs

Photo courtesy: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports


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