Nebraska Football: Four challenges facing Mike Riley’s first year with Cornhuskers

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Nov 1, 2014; Lincoln, NE, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Imani Cross (32) runs against Purdue Boilermakers defender Anthony Brown (9) in the second half at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska won 35-14. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Challenge Four: Who Replaces Ameer Abdullah?

Terrell Newby and Imani Cross are the top two options in the backfield, but there’s not going to be any easy answer for replacing the All-American Ameer Abdullah. The change in the Cornhuskers’ attack may not render the No. 1 back role as significant, but Nebraska is not going to entirely abandon its bread and butter. It will need production from its backs.

Mike Riley, however, is announcing a departure from the Cornhuskers’ typical approach so reliant on a primary ball carrier. Riley told reporters, via, “I’ll say this kind of reluctantly…But it really is better for everybody if you have two or three guys kind of share that job to take the burden off. We’ve always before been a one back show…but I really think that in this day and age in football to have at least two or three guys you can just put in the game and rotate in.”

Last season Newby rushed for 297 yards on 67 attempts, good for just 4.4 yards per carry. He had five touchdowns on the year. With Abdullah doing most of the work, Newby wasn’t heavily featured and received spotty carries in all but the Rutgers and Florida Atlantic contests last season.

Cross now has three seasons of experience, but is due to be much more heavily featured finally. He has averaged five yards or more per carry all three years at Nebraska and the senior rushed for 384 yards last season. Cross is a big, bruising back at 6-foot-1 240 pounds, and he’s experienced even if he has never been the featured back.

Against Purdue last season Abdullah was knocked out of the game and Cross rushed 20 times for two touchdowns in the game.

There is some younger talent on the team that will be vying for time: Sophomore Adam Taylor, redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon and senior Andy Janovich will receive looks. Taylor is perhaps the most interesting from a talent standpoint, given his 2,700-plus yards rushing as a high school senior in 2012, but he’s battled knee injuries and has failed to cash in on that hype.

Wilbon, too, has a lot of talent and received high billing as a four-star recruit out of high school. Janovich is unlikely to factor into the picture, but Riley’s “by committee” approach will make sure he has at least an outside chance in his last college season.

But after all those options have been rendered obsolete, Cross should be the featured back finally at Nebraska. He likely won’t be featured heavily in screen plays this season. Cross’ best attribute in the offense may be his goal line rushing ability.

Newby and Cross could complement one another very well, too, all things considered.

Newby is a different type of back than Cross at a diminutive 5-foot-10 180 pounds, but he is obviously much quicker and a good change of pace option. Newby’s footwork is superb and he’s capable of shaking even the best defenses. However, despite great speed and fundamentals, he’s never rushed for more than a 43 yard play, and Nebraska is expecting progression after two seasons of somewhat disappointing results.

The Cornhuskers are going to want to try to find ways to highlight Newby’s speed because it does not seem like the most has been milked of his talents, at least through his first two seasons.

So, the team loses Abdullah and a lot changes in the backfield, but this is Nebraska and running the football is a way of life for the Cornhuskers. Pro-style offense, changes, and so on—this is still going to be a team that can punish oppositions rushing the ball. Don’t deceive yourselves.

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