LINCOLN — No matter how hard it might be, Nebraska I-back Terrell Newby has gotten pretty good at fighting the urge to peek too far ahead.
It can be a little like running the football. See what’s immediately in front of you first, then deal with the rest as it comes.
That’s how Newby viewed the first eight games of this sophomore season, as senior Ameer Abdullah was putting up the kind of rushing numbers that led to Heisman Trophy conversation. No need to think about life without Abdullah just yet.
“I have to concentrate in the now,” Newby said. “I’m always focused on the task ahead, and I feel like that’s all I’m doing.”
That narrow focus could serve Newby well this week, depending on the health of Abdullah as NU prepares to visit Wisconsin on Saturday with major Big Ten West implications riding on the outcome.
If Abdullah is limited by his left knee injury or unable to go, Newby and junior Imani Cross would be thrust into more big-game duty than they maybe have seen. It also would be a teaser to next season, when Newby will move closer to the kind of action he’s been craving since signing in 2013 as a touted recruit out of West Hills, California.
And NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Tuesday that Newby is ready if an expanded role is necessary.
“He has to be. Guys have to step up and play,” Beck said. “We’ve got confidence in him. He’s proven to us over the last spring and last season and even into the fall that I think he can do it. I know our guys have confidence in him, and I think the coaches have confidence in him.”
Newby just hasn’t been afforded the opportunity as a sophomore that Abdullah already had received by this point two years ago, when Rex Burkhead suffered a knee injury in the season-opening game and Abdullah started the next week at UCLA.
“That’s what makes it a little different,” Beck said when asked to compare where Newby is as a sophomore in relation to Abdullah.
“Ameer got thrown in and had to go, because of the injury, where Terrell’s waiting his turn and being very patient at doing that, and (we’re) trying to use him as we can. But he’s a very talented young guy and he’s got a great attitude and great work ethic, and good things are going to happen for him.”
Although Abdullah has gone on to climb the Husker all-time rushing chart in a hurry, at least the start of their Husker careers looked a lot alike for Abdullah and Newby.
Abdullah was a freshman in 2011, sharing backup duty with Aaron Green and Braylon Heard as Burkhead was having an All-Big Ten season with 1,357 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior. Abdullah was limited to 42 attempts and 150 yards.
Newby was a freshman in 2013, waiting for the table scraps with Cross as Abdullah was starring as a junior with 1,690 yards and All-Big Ten recognition. Newby finished with 54 carries and 298 yards.
Beck said he does see some similarities between the backs after a year in the Husker system.
“You can tell that he knows it a lot more, sees things better,” Beck said. “He has a better feel of the offense and where things are supposed to hit or what he’s supposed to do. You saw that with Ameer. In the first year, it’s a lot of just talent. In the second year, besides the talent, that other stuff starts kicking in.”
Thrown into action, Abdullah rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the 36-30 loss at UCLA the week after Burkhead tweaked his knee. Burkhead would miss six games overall and leave two others early in 2012, leaving Abdullah enough work to get the first of three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Newby said he wouldn’t want playing time because of an injury to Abdullah, but would be ready for the challenge if that’s how it comes. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder picked up 42 yards on nine carries as he and Cross finished the Purdue game on Nov. 1 after Abdullah went down.
“I’ve had that brought up to me numerous times, just about Rex (getting hurt) and how Ameer really started to grow more as a player and everything,” Newby said. “But the only thing I can really do now is focus on Wisconsin. So whatever opportunity is out there, I’ll just have to take it.”
Newby has 271 yards and four touchdowns on 58 carries this season. Cross is at 332 yards and five TDs on 64 attempts.
Abdullah and his model example and consistent approach have helped keep Newby going the right direction. Just as Burkhead did for Abdullah.
“I feel like I’ve made real good strides in my development as a player,” Newby said. “I’ve learned a lot this season, just about football in general. But I feel like I’m still growing, and there are still definitely a lot of things I still need to work on.
“I feel like the biggest thing that I really take away from Ameer is just work ethic, on and off the field. That’s just one of the things where we keep the standards high for running backs here.”
If the call were to come Saturday, Newby would be ready for whatever is put on his shoulders. Running the ball, catching passes, returning kicks ... whatever.
It’s hard not to want it. And Newby admits that maybe he does think about 2015 just a little from time to time, when Abdullah is off to the NFL and the door swings open for himself, Cross and Adam Taylor.
“Well, yeah ... I feel like everyone does, when you see an opportunity,” Newby said. “Obviously there’s a great opportunity, but not just for me, but for other guys and for the team.”
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