LINCOLN, Neb. — With the top two rushers from last season gone, Nebraska finds itself searching for a feature back.
The top three choices seem to be sophomore Tre Bryant, and juniors Mikale Wilbon and Devine Ozigbo.
All three are different types of backs. All three are healthy. And all three are on a level playing field, Nebraska coaches said after practice on Thursday.
“[We’d] love to have one take off with the job,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said after practice. “That hasn’t happened yet.”
Ozigbo was Nebraska’s leading rusher through nonconference play in 2016. An ankle injury against Illinois nagged him the rest of the season. He finished third on the team with 429 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns.
Bryant returned kicks as a true freshman and racked up 179 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground. Wilbon didn’t see the field much in 2016, rushing 15 times for 91 yards.
Despite having three capable backs, Langsdorf said he doesn’t want to have all three play significant minutes. He wants one back. One guy Nebraska can rely on.
“You always have some concern about hits and being tired, but you also want a guy that can get into that groove and rhythm of the game,” Langsdorf said. “We’d rather not have a bunch of guys playing, but they’re all worthy of playing. They look pretty good, so we’re trying to sort that out.”
At this point, it appears that Bryant and Wilbon are splitting first-team reps.
Though he has the least experience, Wilbon is in the mix because of his spring and summer progress, according to running backs coach Reggie Davis.
“Mikale had an incredible spring, and so the first few days of camp have been really good for him,” Davis said.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley has talked often about how he wants his starting running back to be both effective and a diverse contributor. Quick throws to the back, checkdowns and screens will be big parts of Nebraska’s offense in 2017.
That leans more toward Mikale and Bryant, Davis said.
“Mikale and Tre probably have the best feel [for screens], but Devine has done a good job with the screens in the past,” Davis said. “And they’re all catching the ball pretty good right now. I think all those guys can get in there and do it.”
It’s early, so a starter likely won’t be announced soon. But Davis and Langsdorf expect a back to start pulling into the lead in the coming weeks with more full-contact scrimmages on the schedule.