LINCOLN — Nine tailbacks coming out of the Southeast back in 2011 were ranked among the top 25 at the position by Rivals.com, and Nebraska junior Ameer Abdullah can recite many of the names from memory.
James Wilder Jr., Isaiah Crowell, Mike Bellamy, Kenny Hilliard, Jeremy Hill and Tre Mason immediately came to mind. He maybe could have come up with Mike Blakely, Devonta Freeman and Marlin Lane if given the time.
Six headed to Southeastern Conference schools, including Mason to Auburn in a move that helped push Abdullah to NU. Two others signed with Florida State, one with Clemson.
Abdullah, watching it all unfold without nearly the same fanfare, chose to pack his bags and go a little farther from home.
“I never hold any grudges or any grief towards any school,” Abdullah said Monday. “I understand it's the recruiting process. They're going to go with who they feel like fits their program the best. It worked out best for me. I feel like I wouldn't want it any other way.”
Crowell since has been dismissed at Georgia after a weapons charge and resurfaced at Alabama State. Bellamy hit academic snags at Clemson and then was kicked out of a Mississippi junior college. Hill was a delayed enrollee at Louisiana State who has been a talented but troubled Tiger. Blakely already has transferred twice.
And two years later, Abdullah owns something only one of those nine can claim: A 1,000-yard rushing season.
The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder from Homewood, Ala., heads into his junior season as a strong All-Big Ten candidate after running for a team-high 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago. The door has only opened for him to do more — and for the expectations to follow — after the departure of Rex Burkhead.
None of what has happened for him and to some of the others, however, will ever change the way he approaches the game.
“I've always played with a chip on my shoulder,” Abdullah said. “I've always been kind of under the radar, and I don't mind that. I prefer it that way.”
Abdullah said “SEC football is what you know” growing up in Alabama, and particularly the Crimson Tide. Auburn was his favorite childhood team, but offers from the Tigers, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina couldn't keep him in the South.
And the obsession with the SEC can even make him cringe at times.
“Me, I'm just a 'football fan,' ” he said. “I'm not an 'SEC fan.' I can respect football all across the country. There's ballers everywhere. They don't just come out of the SEC. We've got a lot of prominent players in the Big Ten. I feel like it don't really matter where you play.”
It could have been Auburn, had the Tigers not coveted Abdullah more as a defensive back than as a tailback. The commitment from Mason, who ran for 1,002 yards last season, dictated some of that thinking.
Mason was No. 14 in those tailback ratings back in 2011. Abdullah wasn't among the 55 listed at the position.
“They kind of were like, 'We want you to play a little safety,' ” Abdullah said. “I'm 5-9, so I'm thinking safety was not going to be the best fit. It didn't bother me at first, but when Nebraska came in I really saw the facilities and the people here and I was more sold on Nebraska than Auburn.”
Nebraska has a modest history of pulling successful I-backs out of the Southeast, with Brandon Jackson (Horn Lake, Miss.), Correll Buckhalter (Collins, Miss.) and I.M. Hipp (Chapin, S.C.) among its 1,000-yard fraternity. Hipp played in the same backfield in the late 1970s as fullback Andra Franklin (Anniston, Ala.).
Abdullah nods knowingly as he hears the names, and says: “It's special to be in that group of tailbacks that came here and were successful.”
It just took an opportunity, and Abdullah said he was blessed that NU head coach Bo Pelini “gave me the chance to come up here and prove that I could play running back.”
“I still got work to do,” he said, “but I like the way it's going so far.”