LINCOLN — Hot hands. Learning curves. Attrition. Ryan Held has dealt with all of it during his second season as Nebraska’s running backs coach.
The assistant is still working through myriad issues as NU prepares for Maryland.
Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson? His 85 carries this season are far more than what coaches planned, but have been necessary amid injuries and the absence of Maurice Washington. His “long-term” projection is still mostly as a receiver, Held said. His status for Saturday is also unclear, though he didn’t wear pads Wednesday.
“We’ll see,” Held said. “It’s still a work in progress.”
Junior college transfer Dedrick Mills? Like Devine Ozigbo last year, it took some time to adjust to the offense before the “compound interest” of practice added up and the rusher broke out for a career-high 188 yards on 17 carries against Wisconsin. Coaches needed some time to learn what he does best, too.
True freshman Rahmir Johnson? The New Jersey native will be a four-hour drive from home Saturday against the Terps, and Held said he’ll have a chance to contribute. The mental side of redshirting — Johnson has three rushes for nine yards in three games this season — has been challenging.
“That can be difficult because I’m getting him fired up each week to play,” Held said. “This’ll be a week, going back home, that he’ll have a chance to go out and get some things done.”
Hickman settled in hybrid role
Nebraska coaches consider Chris Hickman both a tight end and a receiver these days. And that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Hickman, who showed up this month on the depth chart as a receiver for the first time, has a range of play-making abilities that allow him to be a sort of wild card not unlike Robinson, NU tight ends coach Sean Beckton said.
“We got a good package for him again this week,” Beckton said. “Whether we use him or not there, is to be determined. But he’s working extremely hard. He’s very attentive. When he gets his opportunity, I want him to go out there and perform and show the Nebraska faithful that he can play for us.”
The decision to have the Omaha Burke grad and true freshman split time at both positions was made in an effort to help develop what the coaches consider one of their better young talents. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Hickman can appear in two more games and still preserve his redshirt eligibility.
Beckton said Hickman is a “natural speed guy” who can stretch the field vertically but is still working on becoming a better route runner. He will continue to work mostly inside the remainder of the season as he learns the offense.
Greg Austin wasn’t particularly surprised that his offensive line played its best game of the season against Wisconsin.
He’s seen this coming.
“The performance is going to be a reflection of the practice and on the bye week and even into last week, those guys prepared well and then they played well,” Austin said.
Austin said he’s been impressed with the line’s ability to synthesize information quickly and turn that into fast-paced play.
“Sometimes you have to learn the hard lessons on Saturdays,” Austin said. “Now as things are kind of getting pieced together a little more, the time and space between getting the play call in before the snap is so much more productive for a lot of our guys and that’s what’s led to the progress that we’ve made.”
Mills helping QBs
Nebraska is finally finding some success on the ground with Mills, and that’s making the quarterback’s job a lot easier, Mario Verduzco said Wednesday.
“Certainly it takes the burden off him No. 1, if you’re talking about Adrian (Martinez), and No. 2, just the play-pass game is going to be more effective with that and your (run-pass option) game and all that sort of business,” Verduzco said.
The quarterbacks coach added he still feels good about his room heading into the final two games.
“I feel really good about it just in terms of their knowledge of what we do, their preparation in what we do, and their health is good and they’re understanding what we want to do. I’m real comfortable with the room.”
» Held laughed at the notion that Nebraska might overlook a struggling Maryland squad. “For the trajectory of where we want to get to, this is as important as anything to keep fighting and see what our guys are willing to do,” Held said. “... We just gotta finish the job and not have the catastrophic plays that change the momentum of the games.”
» Robinson left the practice field without pads on, with his jersey over a hooded sweatshirt, much like last week.
» Austin praised the continued development of left guard Trent Hixson, who has practiced and played well, Austin said.