Why the starting tailback for Nebraska just might be the guy who catches the ball the best
LINCOLN, Neb. — To get into the swing, you’re probably going to have to embrace the swing. Or the wheel. The shoot. The crease. The flat. Three yards and cloud of stab routes. It’s less about Roger Craig in Nebraska Cornhuskers red — and more about Roger Craig in San Francisco 49ers gold.
“Yeah, it was definitely one thing that they harped on a lot, obviously, is catching the ball and pass (protection),” Huskers I-back Devine Ozigbo said after the Big Red wrapped up its 2017 spring game.
“I feel like every back has gotten better about it. I feel, especially myself, I feel I’ve gotten a lot better when it comes to actually (the) technique of blocking. Which is definitely important.”
Especially now. And particularly if you want to stick.
If The Mike Riley Era in Lincoln sort of officially starts in Year 3 — new defensive coordinator, new defensive scheme, new quarterback, pass-first quarterback, farewell to the zone read — then the staff’s preferred look for the featured back starts now, too.
Carries are out.
“Touches” are in.
Because buried in the Red-White box score, beneath the quarterback tussle and Tanner Lee’s touch and Tristan Gebbia’s bazooka and the novelty of actually throwing to a tight end, was this little nugget:
Of the top 7 receivers this past Saturday at Memorial Stadium, 4 were running backs.
‘(If) they’re going to check it down, we have to make sure to catch the ball.’
— Nebraska RB Devine Ozigbo
And the most notable among them was walk-on hero Wyatt Mazour, a 5-foot-9 sophomore from Albion, Neb., who lived up to the whole second-coming-of-Danny Woodhead billing with 6 receptions for 81 receiving yards — 78 of which came with the White (reserves) team.
“I just needed to show the coaches I (had) consistency,” Mazour mused, “especially with my pass blocking.”
My pass blocking.
Brave new world, kids.
Although, in hindsight, everybody brought something to hang their respective helmets on. Sophomore Tre Bryant (3 carries, 36 rushing yards) opened with the first team as the featured back and got to third and fourth gear in a hurry. Mikale Wilbon (20 receiving yards, 25 rushing yards) turned a swing pass from Patrick O’Brien into a 9-yard score.
And despite a strain in his lower back that made cuts a royal pain in the backside, Ozigbo looked strong going north and south (71 all-purpose yards), especially on a 6-yard rumble up the gut for a touchdown midway through the second quarter.
“A lot of times the defense can dictate where you’re going to be going with the football,” Riley explained, “and so when our tight end can be productive and can be a threat, and the defense knows it, then they can’t so often flat out double-cover your wide receivers, then you’ve got it going on.
“So if our tight end and our slot back — and especially our running back — can catch some balls, then life will be better.”
Translation: The pocket is sacred again.
And progressions — we’re used to option 1, option 2, then take off — aren’t lip service anymore.
From 2003-2014 at Oregon State, Mike Riley quarterbacks averaged 290 completions per year, and the Beavers’ top 2 running backs were responsible, on average, for catching 57 of them — or about 20 percent:
Under Bo Pelini, the Big Red’s top two ball-carriers averaged 30.3 receptions per year. And Nebraska hasn’t had a 1-2 punch of tailbacks cross the 57-catch mark, combined, in a season since 2007 — when Marlon Lucky (75 receptions) and Quentin Castille (3) combined to snare 78 balls for quarterback Sam Keller and coach Bill Callahan.
Yeah, yeah, we know. Don’t go there.
“You’ve seen a little bit of the counter and the counter-gap schemes with the pulling elements to it … we haven’t run that,” Riley admitted. “We are going to have to have some things in the running (game) that replace a lot of the quarterback ones that we had a year ago. That gap scheme, that counter-scheme, that blew legs off of it … the first part of spring that was not encouraging, but we’ve got to stay with it. And it’s become more encouraging as we have gone on.”
The option’s out.
Draws are in.
Screens are in.
“It’s definitely a good opportunity,” Ozigbo said. “(If) they’re going to check it down, we have to make sure to catch the ball.”
For decades, a Nebraska quarterback’s best friend was his pitch man. Now? Now it’s his hot read.