LINCOLN — After nearly every spring practice — and most practices last fall, for that matter — Nebraska running back Mikale Wilbon would stay late to work on his skills as a pass catcher. Such was the case one Thursday evening this spring, as Wilbon walked by offensive lineman Jerald Foster, who was giving an interview to several reporters.
“Mikale Wilbon, that’s the dude, that’s the guy!” Foster said. “That’s the reason I’m blocking!”
Wilbon and Foster, both sophomores, play different positions. Wilbon is from Chicago, while Foster graduated from Lincoln Southeast. But they’ve traveled somewhat similar roads thus far in their Husker careers. Both redshirted and starred on the scout team in 2014.
Both were projected — by former NU coaches, journalists and fans — to be significant contributors in 2015. Both had good practices in fall camp.
Neither played much at all.
The same is true for two other touted sophomores from the 2014 recruiting class, Tanner Farmer and Peyton Newell. Farmer was the highest-rated commit in the class according to the 247Sports Composite service. Newell was No. 3, Wilbon No. 4 and Foster No. 7. Two other recruits in that top seven — No. 5 Zack Darlington and the now-departed No. 6 Joe Keels — haven’t played much, either.
The fruits of the 2014 recruiting class appear ready to blossom this spring, though — with Foster and Wilbon leading the way.
“We both needed to step up in knowing everything that’s going on,” Foster said. “I feel like we’re both doing that.”
Foster was beaten out for a starting job by now-graduated Chongo Kondolo — and once Kondolo was benched, Zach Sterup — but Wilbon appeared to have some role in the offense based on his playing time in the season opener against BYU. The 5-foot-9 195-pounder had six carries, and he caught two passes and seemed to be the best option on screen plays. Wilbon played in only three more games — with three carries — all season.
What happened? Devine Ozigbo emerged, for one thing, as a more versatile player. Ozigbo also appeared to know more of the offense than did Wilbon, who dropped to fourth-string. Running backs coach Reggie Davis — asked ad nauseam last season about Wilbon and generally tight-lipped about his running back’s progress — hinted this spring camp that Wilbon just didn’t know enough of the offense to play a variety of roles in it.
“From a playcaller’s standpoint, you don’t want to have to look out there and say, ‘Oh, I can’t call this. It’d be a great call right now, but I can’t call it because of the guy who’s in the game,’ ” Davis said. “You don’t want to do that to your team. You don’t want to be predictable. The defense is able to figure out pretty fast, ‘They don’t do this, this and this when this guy’s in the game.’ So you want a guy who makes it hard on the defense and makes it easy on the playcaller.”
Neither Davis nor any other offensive coach, including coach Mike Riley, has ever critiqued Wilbon’s running ability. He’s shifty and light on his feet, a more compact version of Ameer Abdullah. He’s not as electric, but he’s the Husker back whose style most resembles Abdullah’s. He attacks holes laterally before darting, with one cut, upfield. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf singled out Wilbon’s excellence on outside zone plays, a prime staple in Abdullah’s game.
Now, for Wilbon — who hasn’t talked to the press this spring — it’s figuring out all the other pieces of the game and mastering the offense. He’s currently rotating snaps with the other top running backs, Terrell Newby and Ozigbo.
“So far, with everything we’ve thrown at him, he’s been great,” Davis said. “A full test will be the defense throwing everything they’ve got at us. That’ll be a full test, and when we have everything in. When you have everything in the playbook, too. When you get volume there, and a lot of volume from the defense, that’ll be a full test.”
Foster, meanwhile, is open about what held him back last season: not mastering the playbook.
“What I felt like I needed to do better, all around, was buy into the program and buy into learning the offense at another level,” Foster said. “Knowing the plays. Being able to just be out there and have the center tell you what to do, that’s one thing, but actually being able to know what’s going on and the reasons why we’re in these plays and why we’re changing our blocking scheme — whatever we’re changing it to — that’s just a different step. And I’m happy to be on that step.”
Working almost exclusively as the No. 1 left guard, Foster has generally impressed offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, who praised Foster’s “maturity” for embracing Cavanaugh’s expectations. Cavanaugh also wants Foster to be more of a “knee-bender” who plays with leverage on run-blocking plays.
From Farmer, Cavanaugh wanted to see the Highland Park, Illinois, native be in better shape. Farmer weighed 335 pounds last season and didn’t operate with the nimbleness or confidence necessary to get much playing time.
Farmer lost 40 pounds — mostly by working with the Nebraska wrestling team — in preparation for spring camp.
“Toward the end of last season, I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m not moving up, I’m not really doing anything, what can I do?’ ” Farmer said. “And I went and talked to Coach Cavanaugh, and he told me, ‘These are the things you need to improve on.’ And I just started to game plan from there.”
Farmer is in a many-player battle at right guard that includes Dylan Utter, Paul Thurston and Corey Whitaker. Either Utter or Thurston is likely to start at center. Farmer is in the mix, though, and if he doesn’t win a starting job, he may at least be a fixture in the rotation.
Which means there’s a chance, at some point in 2016, that Wilbon, Foster and Farmer — touted recruits from 2014 — are all on the field at the same time, perhaps paving the way for a Wilbon touchdown.
“Mikale, I see him as a real good running back and somebody I’ll be happy to see scoring in the end zone,” Foster said. “Lifting that guy will make my day.”
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