Huskers Prep Without Rex
Rex Burkhead did not practice in pads on Wednesday. His status is listed as "day to day", but it is hard to expect a player who isn't practicing on Wednesday to be a major contributor on the weekend. The implications for Nebraska - prepare more backups at running back and add some variety to the running game with designed quarterback run plays.
Pelini is notoriously reluctant to give anything more than the bare minimum when it comes to injury updates. Seldom have the words "he's fine" meant so little as when said by Coach Pelini. But, the reality is that Husker fans need to brace for a game, or possibly more, without Burkhead in the lineup. With the Legends division at stake against Michigan, it's not a good time for NU's best and most complete player to be on the sideline. But, other options exist for keeping the reliable Husker running game in motion against a stout Wolverine defense.
Ameer Abdullah has proven his worth this year. First splitting carries with Burkhead, and more recently as the Huskers' featured runner, he's rushed for 615 yards and caught 129 yards worth of passes. He's displayed improved toughness while remaining elusive in space. He's clearly the bell cow for the Husker offense now. But, without other options, he can wear down (He's not Superman, you know). So, other runners will need to spell Abdullah in situations and for several series in NU's regular offense.
Calling on Cross, Heard
Freshman Imani Cross was called on in a big spot against Northwestern last week. He converted a third down with a tough run.
"He's a good inside runner. He's very strong," Runningbacks Coach Ron Brown told press on Wednesday. "The kid's a gamer. He's a hard working kid," Brown said, adding that "you're going to see more and more of Imani Cross as the year goes on."
Specific to Saturday, it's fair to expect to see Cross used in short yardage situations on Saturday against Michigan.
One other runner that Husker coaches need to prepare to play more is Sophomore Braylon Heard. Heard has had more time in the offense than Cross, and conceivably can be used in a more extensively. Heard could spell Abdullah for a series or two, rather than just a situation. He's a fluid and explosive runner. While not as elusive as Abdullah, he runs north-south and gets up field quickly. Both Heard and Cross need to be prepared as though they could play key roles on Saturday with Burkhead out.
Designed Runs for Martinez
The other rushing option absent Burkhead is to have quarterback Taylor Martinez shoulder more of the rushing load. Martinez's rushing attempts have been creeping steadily higher as Big Ten play wears on. He had 18 carries in the games against Ohio State and Northwestern. Compare that to the 13 he had in games against Wisconsin and UCLA, and it quantifies how much more the coaches are willing to use his legs.
Qualitatively, look at the types of runs Martinez is making. Where he was once running the ball almost exclusively on read option plays earlier in the season, the coaches are now calling more plays where Taylor is the designated ball carrier. The designed quarterback draw plays knifed the Wisconsin defense. Against Northwestern, there were quarterback isolation plays and sweeps, where Martinez played more like a running back.
No doubt, Nebraska is a better team with a healthy Rex Burkhead in the lineup. But, watch for NU to use a variety of runners - and a variety of run styles - to try and keep their running game on schedule and the Michigan defense on their heals.