Pernell: Previewing the Running Backs
The 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior has come in and impressed his coaches and teammates. Ryan Held has made several comments throughout fall camp praising Mills’ work-ethic, competitiveness, and workmanlike approach during practices. He’s a powerful runner that excels running between the tackles. This summer, Held said of Mills, “He’s probably one of the best backs I’ve had, in four years at the places I’ve been, of hitting it downhill.” After a very strong camp, the expectation is Mills will come in and take over the bell cow role Devine Ozigbo held last season. He’s a great fit for the Big Ten and it wouldn’t surprise to see him eclipse the 1,082 yards Ozigbo totaled last year.
Mills was regarded as a four-star recruit, the No. 1 RB and No. 12 overall juco prospect by Rivals. He earned honorable mention NJCAA All-America honors after rushing for 1,358 yards (4th nationally) and 19 touchdowns (national leader) in 10 games this past season at Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Mills produced six 100-yard rushing efforts and had at least 240 rushing yards in three games, even though defenses loaded the box with eight and nine guys to try and stop him. But what inspires even more confidence in Mills’ talents translating to the Big Ten is that he already enjoyed Power Five success. Mills ran for 771 yards, averaging 85.7 yards per game, to go along with 12 touchdowns as a freshman at Georgia Tech in 2016. Former Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson regarded him as one of the best players on his roster, even as a true freshman.
Mills headed into his sophomore season as a preseason All-ACC selection and a member of the Maxwell Award watch list. However, less than three weeks before the season opener, Mills was kicked off the team for a third positive drug test, which triggered an automatic dismissal. He ended up transferring to Garden City, where he redshirted in 2017 after breaking his collar bone less than two games into the season and logging just seven carries. Husker coaches looked into the situation at Georgia Tech and came away confident it’s something that is not of concern any longer. Former Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson praised Mills as both a player and person following his dismissal. His coach at Garden City, Jeff Sims, worked with Jovan DeWitt at Florida Atlantic for two years and echoed those sentiments as well.>
Rounding out the top two is sophomore Maurice Washington, assuming he’s available. Washington continues to face two criminal charges – including a felony – in California, stemming from allegations that he possessed and sent a 10-second video that showed a 15-year-old girl performing oral sex, to the girl, his former girlfriend, years later. Washington was not involved in the recording of the video or sex act. The video was recorded in 2016, and Washington allegedly sent it in March 2018 when the two reconnected on social media. The Nebraska athletic department spoke to a California investigator in September (2018) who was trying to get a hold of Washington, but NU said it didn’t know the specifics of the allegations until charges against Washington were filed in the courts on Feb. 13. Since the initial charge, Washington has appeared in California court four times. His next hearing date, a preliminary examination setting, is Sept. 3 in Santa Clara County Superior Court. That’s three days after the Huskers’ season opener against South Alabama on Aug. 31.
Adding to a frustrating offseason, Washington was cited by University Police on suspicion of possessing drug paraphernalia on June 4, after police searched his room and found a marijuana pipe with residue in it. Questions regarding Washington’s availability will persist while the legal process is ongoing, but there has to be genuine concern over his maturity and decision making at this point. Will the cumulative effects of his offseason lead to a suspension from Frost? Can the coaches ultimately trust the talented running back to conduct himself in the manor they expect moving forward?
Off-the-field concerns aside, Washington is a dangerous player on the field. As a true freshman last year, Washington showed why he was so coveted by coaches late in the recruiting process. He appeared in 11 games, making two starts, finishing with 455 rushing yards and three touchdowns and adding 24 catches for 221 yards and one touchdown out of the backfield. Keep in mind he did that without the benefit of any summer conditioning with Zach Duval. Washington finished work for his diploma after his senior year and retook the ACT on July 14 – the final test date. He wasn’t admitted into Nebraska until two days before the start of fall camp. With academic business to take care of last spring, Washington’s weight dipped to a reported 170-pounds by the time he arrived last August.>
Despite the slight frame and late arrival, Washington impressed coaches and teammates immediately. He was the talk of camp last summer and proceeded to back up the preseason hype. His vision, burst, elusiveness and instincts proved to be special and by all accounts is enjoying another strong camp. Husker defenders have commented how much stronger and faster he is this summer. Ryan Held has said Washington is staying focused despite his legal situation hanging over his head. Now listed at 190-pounds, the 6-foot-1 tailback has started to add to his frame, although he could definitely stand to add another 20 pounds in the coming years. Bottom line, if Maurice Washington can keep his head on straight, he can be as dangerous in this offense as anyone Scott Frost has coached.>
Next in line for carries is true freshman Rahmir Johnson, a four-star recruit who has enjoyed a strong camp. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound New Jersey native was one of the fastest running backs on the East Coast. A track star, Johnson has official career bests of 6.54 seconds in the 55 meters, 10.75 in the 100 meters and 21.46 in the 200 meters. Johnson is a smooth, patient runner who gets to top speed quickly. He excels as a one-cut and go runner and displays elite burst and an extra gear when he hits the open field. His versatility, speed and big-play ability make him a great fit in Frost’s offense. Johnson can also be lined up in the slot or split out wide.
Someone who probably won’t make his mark this season, but is a guy the staff is very high on, is freshman Ronald Thompkins. Heading into his junior year, the four-star Thompkins was considered one of the most physically gifted football players in the South. There were teams who recruited him to play cornerback, safety and wide receiver, he’s that good of an athlete. The one-time Florida State commit was being heavily recruited by Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee, USC and numerous others.
Coaches are going to need to be smart with the Georgia native, however, after his last two seasons were marred by separate knee injuries. Thompkins only played six games his junior year before he tore the ACL in his right knee. Then last Aug. 25 he tore the ACL in his left knee on just the 7th carry of his senior season.
Thompkins was left off the 110-man roster to start camp, but was added about 10 practices in. His first day, he was going through drills without a brace on either knee. If his injury troubles are behind him, this kid could end up being one of the better players in the 2019 class. Already a solid 5-foot-11 and 195-pounds, when Thompkins is healthy, he’s a complete back who can run with power and has the agility and speed to make a defender miss in the open field and break long runs. I expect the staff to keep Thompkins on the shelf and not take any risks this season. He spent most of fall camp wearing a green non-contact jersey.
After the top three of Mills, Washington and Johnson, you have a glut of two or three other backs who will fight for carries. We’ve heard good things from redshirt freshman walk-on Brody Belt (5-8, 185), and after being dinged up in the spring, senior Wyatt Mazour (5-9, 200) was mentioned by Ryan Held as a guy who could be in line for carries this year after a nice fall camp. Will either of them get meaningful reps this fall? We know Duck-R guys like Wan’Dale Robinson and Miles Jones will get their share of carries this season.
I’m interested in finding out if/when redshirt freshman Moses Bryant (5-11, 200) makes his presence felt. Bryant was one of the most prolific prep running backs in Nebraska history. He set the state’s 11-man record with 105 career touchdowns, as well as the Class B’s all-time rushing record with 5,454 yards playing for Elkhorn South. Some might recall Bryant being a fixture at the FNL camps organized by the previous staff. He worked out as a WR in 2015, and as a CB in 2016 and 2017, while being identified as a standout each time. He practiced at cornerback last year during his redshirt season and was subsequently moved to running back after the first week of spring ball. Is the move permanent? By all accounts, he has a long ways to go in learning the offense. It won’t be this season, but Bryant is a guy to keep tabs on long-term.
It’s now or never time for another one of the most decorated running backs in state history, Jaylin Bradley, who ran for 4,627 yards and 69 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Bellevue West. There was a lot of intrigue with Bradley heading into last season. He was heavily recruited by Frost while he was at UCF, so the assumption was that he’d make a smooth transition into the new offense. The 6-foot, 200-pound Bradley showed some promise as a true freshman in 2017 in the limited opportunities he received. Unfortunately, last year was a disaster for him. Struggles away from the field put him on a proverbial milk carton throughout a large part of the season. He spent several home games not suited up, but rather with a group of players in the stands. Ryan Held touched on the redshirt sophomores situation in the spring. “He played well last spring, the coach said. “Then in the summer, he had some personal things I think going on in his life, so that might have contributed to him not being as focused as he needed to be in the fall,” Held said. “This is really a make-or-break spring (for him), in terms of we need to see what he can do because we have some guys coming in that we’re really excited about that will change my room – it’ll be a lot different come Aug. 1.”
There was a golden opportunity for Jaylin Bradley to put himself in the conversation for playing time this fall. With the graduation of Devine Ozigbo and the limited participation from Maurice Washington, the team was desperately thin at running back this spring. Bradley failed to separate himself from a group of walk-ons.
Ryan Held is one of the best recruiters in the country. Just look at the guys he’s added already. He’ll continue to bring in talent every year; no job is safe and returning players will have to continue to earn their keep. That’s the culture he’s establishing in his room. It’s exciting to imagine how this position group will look after another recruiting class or two.
This is an offensive system that wants to throw multiple running backs at a defense and overwhelm you. In their heyday when Frost was there, Oregon was deadly doing this. This system loves home-run hitters, and Held is bringing those guys to Lincoln. The team loses a 1,000-yard rusher in Ozigbo, but this position group is going to be better than last year. With all due respect, Dedrick Mills is an upgrade over Ozigbo. Then you consider Washington is taking another step in his development and you add promising youngster Rahmir Johnson into the rotation. Contributions from Duck-R guys will also add to the rushing attack.
The Huskers last season averaged 209 rushing yards per game, the most since 2014, and ranked 28th nationally. Central Florida’s rushing yards under Frost went from 1,835 (141.2) in 2016 to 2,583 (199.2 ypg) in 2017 and remember Oregon was consistently in the top 5 in the country in rushing offense. Could this team crack the top 15-20 nationally this season? They’d have to get into the 230-range to do so. Position Grade: B
Previous position previews: QBs
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25 years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.