Scott Frost, Bryan Applewhite seen two top running backs after ‘giant leap’ in camp | Football


SAM MCKEWON Omaha World-Herald

Nebraska plans to fly all 110 of its training camp participants to Ireland. Since it’s a Big Ten game, some of those players won’t suit up.

That means hard choices for playing time — none tougher than the one Scott Frost and Bryan Applewhite face with NU’s running backs.

But it’s a good problem to have for a program that has struggled to keep backs healthy and productive since Frost’s arrival. Through three weeks of camp, Frost said he’s thrilled with their progress.

“Our running back room has really made a giant leap,” Frost said Saturday. “It’s going to be tough to separate yourself from that group with the guys that we have in that room.”

Returning backs Rahmir Johnson, Gabe Ervin and Jaquez Yant are better than they were, Frost said, and they’ve been pushed by new additions Anthony Grant, Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson.

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“The competition has spurred them to play harder,” Frost said. Applewhite, the Husker running backs coach “demands a lot” of them, too.

“He’s coaching them hard,” Frost said. “And he’s getting a lot out of them.”

Asked specifically about the 6-foot, 215-pound Ervin, Frost said the redshirt freshman from Buford, Georgia, is better than he was in 2021, when as a true freshman he started several games before tearing his ACL in the loss at Oklahoma. Ervin sat out Saturday, Frost said, because his knee was “flaring up a little.”

“He looks, bigger, faster,” Frost said. “Hitting holes really hard.”

Johnson, Frost said, has done a “great job” of developing his skill set after the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder had 690 rushing and receiving yards last season. Johnson, better in an open space than the phone booth of the tackle box, has also been working as a slot receiver.

Yant, 6-2, maintained his spring weight of 235 pounds heading into training camp; he’s the biggest back on the team. Grant, the top junior college running back in 2021, likely would have played at TCU had Applewhite stayed in Fort Worth. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder matriculated instead to Nebraska, where he’s in the mix for the starting job. Allen, a 5-11, 185-pound freshman, followed Applewhite in February from TCU to NU, while Johnson, 5-11, 190, signed with the Huskers in December 2021, one month before Applewhite arrived.

Applewhite said earlier in training camp that he wants to develop all the players to be three-down backs, but Nebraska will have packages that are “geared towards” specific players depending on situation and spot on the field.

“But I expect all of them to be able to handle every situation,” Applewhite said.

Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said he wants to rotate at least three backs — his offenses at Pittsburgh and Massachusetts bear that out — while Applewhite wants six or seven because running backs get hurt with some frequency.

Nebraska’s recent history bears that out, too. Last season, NU had five backs with 30 or more carries.

“I don’t want an easy decision,” Applewhite said in early August. “I don’t want an ‘OK, this guy is clearly the No. 1 guy because no one else has pushed him.’ It’s like the Triple Crown race. They’re pushing each other.”

The Huskers will start to construct their depth chart after a Sunday scrimmage, Frost said, with preparation for Northwestern starting in earnest by Tuesday. Because the Ireland trip will feature long travel, jet lag and tourist events not typically associated with a normal Big Ten road trip, Nebraska won’t wait until game week for a classic installation of the plan. By Tuesday, the backs NU intends to ride should know their role.

Whoever it is, Frost said, can change the way Nebraska runs the ball.

“When you’ve got good running backs, they make O-lines look good,” Frost said. “We’re definitely better in the running back because of the kids and the coach.”

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