What Kind of Production from New Backs?
It's not often that Nebraska has gone into a season with so little returning experience at running back. Hopes are high that five-star recruit Aaron Green and the electric Ameer Abdullah will have instant impact behind Rex Burkhead. History says we might want to temper those expectations. The design of the new offense will play an important role, no doubt. But so far the descriptions have been cryptic enough to where it's hard to say how many carries the running backs will get next season. So instead, we look at seasons past where Nebraska was in a similar situation personnel-wise for clues on what to anticipate from the backfield.
The obvious comparison might be to 2005. Cory Ross was a returning veteran. Brandon Jackson had some experience, though injuries limited his opportunities in 2005. Marlon Lucky was every bit the prospect that Aaron Green was. And Cody Glenn was a promising and solid recruit as well. Cory Ross was the workhorse that year, carrying the ball 225 times for 882 yards (he also caught 43 passes for 392 more yards) with 8 touchdowns. Cody Glenn was second on the team with 45 carries for 131 yards and 4 touchdowns. Lucky had 43 carries for 129 yards and no scores. Some of the carries by the youngsters were in meaningful situations, but it was the Cory Ross Show.
Following the 1989 season, Leodis Flowers was the only returning back with meaningful production. Nebraska had big-time recruits in Derek Brown and Calvin Jones (who would redshirt in 1990). Scott Baldwin was coming off of a redshirt year. Flowers led the team in carries with 149 for 940 yards and 9 touchdowns. He missed two games that season. Baldwin tallied 92 carries for 579 yards and 5 touchdowns in 10 games. Derek Brown appeared in 8 games and carried 59 times for 375 yards with 5 touchdowns. Brown was also the team's fifth-leading receiver with five catches for 79 yards and a score.
While both Brown and Baldwin returned, Baldwin would carry just 9 times for 80 yards and 2 scores, appearing in 3 games. The "we-backs" were born. Derek Brown carried the ball 230 times for 1313 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also added 10 catches for 86 yards. Calvin Jones carried 108 times for 900 yards and 14 touchdowns.
What Does this Tell Us?
In each season, the returning player became a workhorse. No surprises there. Flowers had 17 carries a game while both Brown and Ross had 22 touches per contest. Nothing seems as important as Rex Burkhead staying healthy next year. It may not be wise to add to Burkhead's workload with too much Wildcat, though you'd be surprised if we don't see it at some point. Next, the carries for newcomers can be fairly modest. Sure Jones and Baldwin had 108 and 92 carries. But they both also had redshirt years. Derek Brown's 64 touches were the most by a true freshman.
By no means is that the ceiling. We've seen freshman backs in more crowded backfields carry the ball more. Ahman Green had 153 touches as a true freshman in 1995. DeAngelo Evans had 160 a year later. But they earned those opportunities. So if Aaron Green and Abdullah are going to be impact players for 2011, it will be because they earn it. History tells us that the carries can be very limited, even with a lack of veteran experience in front of them.