LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Devine Ozigbo’s strong finish to last season and the performances of all the top running backs this spring has Nebraska’s offense believing it can achieve coach Mike Riley’s goal of ranking in the top three in rushing in the Big Ten.
Whether Ozigbo, Terrell Newby or Mikale Wilbon emerges as the top back probably won’t be determined soon, running backs coach Reggie Davis said, and it’s possible the Cornhuskers will use a rotation like they did in 2015.
”We have a good problem right now,” Davis said.
Ozigbo, Newby and Wilbon have gotten an equal amount of work with the No. 1 offense through six practices. Ozigbo, however, has received most of the attention. After totaling 17 carries for 122 yards in eight regular-season games he ran 21 times for 87 yards in the bowl win over UCLA. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound rising sophomore also came out of winter conditioning leaner, quicker and eager for a heavier workload.
Riley typically committed to one back getting the vast majority of the carries when he was at Oregon State. But in his first season at Nebraska, Newby and Imani Cross split most of them, with Ozigbo getting a few, too. Cross has graduated, but now Wilbon has joined the competition.
”At first, this rotation is kind of weird,” Ozigbo said. ”Coach Davis says to always be ready. If a guy knows he’s going to get most of the carries, it’ll probably help him out. I also feel if you say everybody is going to play, all three are going to be hungry and will try to separate themselves from the others.”
Of course, Ozigbo wants to be the man. And he knows Newby and Wilbon feel the same way.
”It’s on everybody’s mind,” Ozigbo said. ”You get the ball, they call a play when you’re in there, and this is my chance. You don’t want to have a slip. You want to have that run that makes them want to run you again.”
Ozigbo is a more punishing back than the 5-11, 200-pound Newby, who ran for a team-leading 765 yards. Both are proven receivers. Newby, who will be a senior in the fall, has run for more than 1,300 yards in his career. He played his first two years behind Ameer Abdullah, and last season he never took firm hold of the job despite starting eight games.
”When you run the ball effectively, you really feel good about the rotation,” Riley said. ”They all go in, they run the ball, they do a good job and you feel good about putting them in and they stay fresh and sometimes you provide a little bit different change of pace in the back. Newby is going to be different then Devine in some ways, so that would be a good combination for us. Now we are looking for other players.”
Wilbon, a 5-8, 190-pound rising sophomore, is getting a long look. He was limited to nine carries in four mop-up appearances last season because he was slow to grasp the new offense and was a liability in pass protection, Davis said.
”I know he worked hard at it, especially in the area of protections. I think he has tried to study that harder and has a better grasp,” Davis said. ”The running portion, we always knew he could run the ball. It’s other parts of the game. But so far he’s been great.”
The Huskers’ 180-yard rushing average ranked sixth in the Big Ten. Riley would like to see that number closer to 200. Nebraska averaged 169 yards on the ground while getting off to a 3-6 start. The average was 204 yards while the Huskers were winning three of their last four games.
”We just want to be more productive,” Riley said. ”We had our moments in big games. One of the reasons we beat Michigan State is we ran the ball well in that game, so we have to find continuity in running the ball. Consistent, reliable running is really what we are looking for.”