The majority of attention for Nebraska this off-season has gone towards the competition for the starting quarterback job. However, there's another position battle that might be even more intense.
By the end of last season, running backs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead were the centerpieces of the Huskers' offense. Now, the No. 1 running back spot is wide open for the taking.
Despite Helu's experience advantage heading into his senior year, the versatility Burkhead showed as a freshman last season is giving many people the belief that he just might surpass Helu on the depth chart by the end of fall camp.
Running backs coach Tim Beck said Burkhead has made big gains this off-season, as he's now up to 210 pounds and is stronger and faster in every lift and drill than he was a year ago.
Add in fellow sophomore Dontrayevous Robinson, who's also bulked up to 236 pounds, and the rest of NU's cast running backs, and the competition for playing time this spring and summer could be hotter than any position on the roster.
"I tried to explain to all of them that the goal for me right now is just getting better," Beck said. "I want to try and find some separation, and I feel like if Tray and Roy and Rex, with their experience from playing last year, they may be ahead of the rest of the guys. I want some separation. I want to see who's going to come out of that pack, and is that guy going to challenge some of the veteran guys with more experience."
There's no telling how much closer the competition might be had Burkhead not missed the bulk of last season due to a foot injury. Though he was able to come back for the regular season finale against Colorado and end the year with a breakout Holiday Bowl performance, there's no denying that the Plano, Texas, native's progress was slowed significantly due to the injury.
Beck said losing Burkhead also had an impact on the Huskers' offense as a whole, as the coaching staff had to alter the direction of the offensive game plan and its play calling when he was removed from the equation. Had Burkhead been able to stay healthy all season, Beck said Nebraska would have likely shifted to the type of offense it showed in the Holiday Bowl much earlier in the year.
"Do I think it effected us a little bit? I'd say probably," Beck said. "I think Rex was a very versatile athlete that we could do a lot of things with, and he also provided some depth. Those two things hurt us. He happened to provide both of them
We were obviously building our offense and our plays and schemes and things, and then he got hurt."
As for Helu, he's coming into spring practice with the top running back job as his to lose. Injury issues also plague him last season, and he was limited at times because of the physical toll he took essentially being Nebraska's primary source of offense.
If anyone is going to benefit from the added depth and competition at running back, it will certainly be Helu. Last season, Beck said Helu suffered some after the loss of Quentin Castille because there was no legitimate threat pushing him for playing time.
"I think the competitive drive is going to help (Roy) a lot," Beck said. "I think when we lost Q last year, human nature tends to allow maybe some complacency to set in, like 'OK, who's going to challenge me?' Even though people saw Rex and saw Tray and the things that they could do, they were still freshmen.
"I think Roy needs that for himself. He needs that competitive drive to push him to get better
I think Roy knows there's guys pushing him. I think the guys that are pushing him know Roy's not just going to lay down. It makes for an interesting spring."
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