Instead of 'thunder and lightning,' Husker running backs could be called 'seek and destroy'

Maurice Washington leaps over a defender during Husker football practice Wednesday.

LINCOLN — Appropriately, Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” clicked onto the Husker practice playlist. The angry, brash rock anthem thumped from two black speakers on the east side of the Hawks Center.

Over the next 60 seconds in Nebraska’s version of the Oklahoma drill, Maurice Washington and Dedrick Mills completed both commands set by the metal band.

Washington was first, as the “chun-chun-chun-chun” rhythm of the electric guitar set the mood.

The sophomore took a handoff from running backs coach Ryan Held, danced right, then left, then right again behind an offensive lineman, finding a sliver of open turf. Washington took two steps then leapt just as a defensive back dove his way. He cleared senior Jeramiah Stovall and landed in stride. Stovall rolled over to find Washington on the other end of the field searching for someone else to juke.

Up next was Mills.

The former Georgia Tech bruiser cut right immediately but got caught in the grasp of 6-foot-4, 285-pound freshman Mosai Newsom. Linebacker Collin Miller readied a hit to finish Mills off, Newsom grabbed Mills’ jersey, and safety Deontai Williams walked into the drill, assuming it was over. But Mills tossed Newsom’s arm to the side and spun around Miller and safety Marquel Dismuke. Williams quickly jumped out of the way as Mills barreled toward the speakers, swiping away one more tackler for good measure.

Held turned around and made eye contact with three NFL scouts watching practice.

“Guy runs his ass off,” he said with a smile.

Seek and destroy. Those might be good nicknames for Washington and Mills, the thunder and lightning of Nebraska’s potential rushing attack.

“They’re playing well,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said.

Particularly Washington, who was one of three players mentioned this week by defenders as someone who impressed in Nebraska’s first scrimmage last weekend.

But questions still cloud Washington’s status.

He still has pending legal issues in California, where he faces a felony charge of possession of a video of a person under 18 engaging in or simulating sexual conduct and a misdemeanor count of sharing a recording without the person’s consent. His next hearing date is Sept. 3 in Santa Clara County Superior Court, after the season opener against South Alabama on Aug. 31. Washington was also cited on suspicion of possession of drug paraphernalia in Lincoln in June.

Coach Scott Frost hasn’t determined if Washington will play the first game. But the sophomore has been a participant during fall camp.

“He’s been great. He’s been great,” Held said. “He’s been dialed in. He’s been great.”

As a true freshman, and playing underweight, Washington ran the ball 77 times for 455 yards and three touchdowns with a 5.9 yards per carry average. He also caught 24 passes for 221 yards and one score.

Held said Washington is focused on football now more than ever. He’s trying to “live for today,” and control what he can control.

The other stuff is the other stuff, Held said.

Washington is a little thicker than last year — he’s listed at 6-1, 190 pounds — but he also has a high metabolism, Held said. So it’s difficult for him to put on — and keep on — healthy weight. But the former four-star recruit from California has been running just as smooth as he did last year. And each time he gets the ball, it’s a reminder of what Nebraska could be getting in the backfield this season. Or what they’ll be missing out on.

“Mo is Mo,” Walters said. “He’s had a good camp. Steady. He’s gotten a little bigger. Now he understands the offense so he can play faster. Great hands, and so, he’s kinda continued where he left off in the fall and he’s done a good job.”

Nebraska will hand the ball off to three or four players per game, Held said, and the 1-2 punch of Washington and Mills would be ideal for Frost’s offense.

Mills is bulky at 5-11 and 220 pounds and has no problem moving a pile.

“You’re not tackling that guy with one arm, I can tell you that,” Held said. “He’s a missile downhill.”

As a freshman at Georgia Tech, Mills ran 152 times for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was dismissed from the team in the summer of 2017 for a violation of athletic department rules and landed at Garden City Community College for 2018. In 10 games, he ran for 1,358 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Held likes the way Mills attacks the line of scrimmage but wants to work with him on his moves at the second and third level of the defense. But even if those don’t get tightened up before the season, Mills provides Nebraska with a Big Ten back who can punish tired defenses in the fourth quarter.

“The pile is moving back when he gets the ball, and that’s what we need,” Held said. “You gotta have a guy like that in this league just because of how physical it is.”

Held has no depth chart, as of yet. And he likes the progress of freshman Rahmir Johnson and walk-on Brody Belt. The running back room is nowhere near set in stone, especially not with Washington’s situation hanging over everything.

But the task of replacing 1,000-yard rusher Devine Ozigbo may not be quite as daunting as previously thought. Especially not when Metallica plays, and defenders are embarrassed by two backs who’ve yet to start a game in a Nebraska uniform.

“I like the options we have,” Held said. “I can tell you that much.”

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Chris Heady covers Husker football and is the Nebraska men's basketball beat writer. He started at The World-Herald in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @heady_chris. Email: chris.heady@owh.com.

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