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  • I-back quartet Huskers' best since 1995

    Nebraska is rebuilding its identity as a power running team. The Cornhuskers are back in the top 10 for rushing yardage and have had four different players crack the 100-yard barrier so far this season.

    Much has been made of Taylor Martinez's new footwork and his prediction that he'll complete 70 percent of his passes this season. Those are important, and although he hasn't proven he can win games with his arm alone, Martinez has improved this year as a passer. But he'll never be a consistently good passing quarterback. He's a great athlete – a good running quarterback who can hurt you with the pass if the Huskers macke you respect their run game.

    Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

    A 73-7 victory over Idaho State Saturday was a a glorified scrimmage that worked well to get Rex Burkhead back into playing shape after sitting out two and a half games with a sprained knee. It was a good way to build depth. It was nice to see backup quarterback Ron Kellogg play half the game and throw a touchdown pass. But it is becoming obvious that Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross are the workhorses that will fuel this team. Running backs coach Ron Brown has a lot of talent to work with, and seems to be developing it well.

    Nebraska has its best stable of I-backs since 1995, when Lawrence Phillips – the most talented running back in NU history before he wrecked his own career with emotional and legal problems – was backed up by future Pro Bowler Ahman Green, plus two other very talented backs, Clinton Childs and Damon Benning.

    If Burkhead makes a full recovery from his knee sprain – and his performance Saturday indicates he is well on the way – the Huskers will have benefited both in the short term and long term because Abdullah, Heard and Cross will be ready for almost anything they are asked to do during the Big Ten season, and over the next couple of years. That's partly because of Burkhead's selfless attitude and leadership skills. While he sat out, his understudies gained carries and confidence. And now Burkhead will be fresher for the conference season.

    Burkhead is the steady hand that Martinez can depend on to help move the chains, the master of converting third-and-short situations by either slithering or smashing for a first down. He's looking a little more explosive this year, having tallied the two longest touchdown runs of his career in the few chances he's had to carry the ball as a senior.

    I originally thought Abdullah would always be a good kick returner who should be limited to third-down duty, but he is becoming a dependable every-down back who can hit the home run. Heard may be the fastest runner of the four, although the least likely to mix it up between the tackles. Like Burkhead and Abdullah, he can catch passes well. Cross is the bruiser who already shows more ability to cut and change directions than someone like Dan Alexander ever did. Cross shows a lot of promise. Burkhead and Abdullah can pick up the blitz well; Heard and Cross are serviceable in that department.

    With Justin Jackson at center, Spencer Long and Seung Hoon Choi at guard, and Brent Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle, the offensive line is crystalizing with Cole Pensick (center/guard), Andrew Rodriguez (tackle) adding quality depth. It can be an excellent line when it gets its rhythm right. Its communication and cohesiveness are improving.

    This is not the speed option team of the 1990s, but the Husker can still run the ball. When it gets rolling, Nebraska is a power running team out of the I formation that can line up in the shotgun spread and run the read option. Taylor Martinez can run straight ahead, but his cutting ability is mediocre at best, and the offensive line seems best suited to blocking for the off-tackle, trap and pitch plays anyway.

    Offensive coordinator Tim Beck talked about a 50-50 mix of runs and passes this season, but After four games, Nebraska has run the ball 192 times and thrown 97 passes. That two-to-one ratio seems to be working well, although I think it will even up a bit more during Big Ten play.

    The question is this: will Beck have enough wisdom and patience to keep pounding Husker opponents with the running game or will he panic and abandon it after three or four scoreless possessions as Nebraska enters the five-game stretch that will pretty much define its season?

    Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com


    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Twelve String's Avatar
      Twelve String -
      I think you hit the nail on the head about the quality of the running game. I have been watching NU football since Bob Devaney rolled into town and this as talented a group as I have seen.

      I have to disagree somewhat with you assessment as Taylor as a passing QB.

      You said that he will “never be a consistently good passing quarterback”. Based on his improvement from last year ( whch has been critiqued by everyone except Jennifer Lopez), and the fact that he is only a Jr. I suspect he can be consistently good at throwing the ball. After four games and a 70% completion rate, one could argue that he already is a model of consistency. Lets see how this year play out before we say "never".
    1. robert lloyd's Avatar
      robert lloyd -
      Martinez can pass.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      @Twelve String, Tad Styker is a burnt out reporter that doesn't have one ounce of coaching talent, which is why he hides at a media station and refuses to apply for a coaching position. He is a great lazy boy reporter that is happy to hate when things are rough, and lazy to praise when things go good. He hasn't ever coached the level most of the Huskers are at so he says what he can to make controversy.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      I'm almost sure Jennifer Lopez has weighed in on Martinez. I believe Taylor said his goal was to complete 70% of his passes, I didn't really take that as a prediction. Will Beck (or Bo) have enough patience, that's really the question.
    1. RedStones's Avatar
      RedStones -
      Honest question. Did Martinez predict a 70% completion rate or did he say it was his goal? I've heard it said both ways but never saw his original quote.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Martinez said 70% was his goal.
    1. BallField78's Avatar
      BallField78 -
      Taylor said it was his goal. He needs to be able to throw high percentage in the tough games as well as the easy ones. He still seems to crack under high pressure, but on the positive, he definitely has the will to survive - I think his best run, while not the longest, was the run against UCLA where he dragged the tackler to get the first down. I think he still has a lot of upside potential.
    1. Dave Feit's Avatar
      Dave Feit -
      While probably not as good as this year's collection of backs, I think 2005 deserves to be in the discussion of best quartets - especially since those four backs play similar roles to the ones from this year:

      The established star / beloved fan favorite: Cory Ross (2005). Rex Burkhead (2012)
      The backup that may be better than the starter: Brandon Jackson (2005), Ameer Abdullah (2012)
      The hyped recruit: Marlon Lucky (2005). Braylon Heard (2012)
      The freshman wrecking ball: Cody Glenn (2005). Imani Cross (2012)
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