Stryker: Mills signing big step toward run game diversity

Category: Football

Any team serious about winning the Big Ten must be solid at the line of scrimmage. But it’s doubly true for Nebraska. Any Cornhusker quest to rise to win the West starts with these two non-negotiables: run the ball well, and control the other team’s running game.

The good news is that with a year’s worth of evidence on the table, it’s obvious Scott Frost, offensive line coach Greg Austin and running back coach Ryan Held are serious about rebuilding Nebraska’s blue collar reputation.

As the 2017 season wound down, that reputation was on life support. Mike Riley talked the talk — his stated goal of becoming the third-best rushing team in the conference was a good one — but he never really walked the walk. In fact, Riley pretty much trashed the Nebraska running game.

I should probably dial back that statement a bit. It wasn’t all Riley’s fault. Running back coach Reggie Davis was passive in his approach to recruiting running backs; he didn’t get enough quality or quantity, and the offensive line was crumbling under Mike Cavanaugh.

My main disappointment with Riley’s approach was that, although he wanted a complex passing game and spent a lot of time on it, he was content to have only a few pages in the playbook dedicated to the rushing game. Translation: he was satisfied with being predictable. Obviously, Big Ten defensive coordinators were happy with Riley’s decision.

They are in for a tougher go of it now. The energy and creativity of Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters are reshaping the Nebraska ground game. In Year One, it was noticeably more diverse. Year Two will be even more so, and likely Years Three and Four will continue that trend. A dependable running game will build consistent success, and spark more excitement in Husker Nation than a bubble screen-based attack. To see the truth in that statement, you only have to look back a few months, when Devine Ozigbo helped improve the emotional health of thousands of Nebraskans. There’s nothing that heals the psyche of a Husker football fan like a long touchdown run — that is, except a Blackshirt quarterback sack. We’ll discuss the defensive side of things in a future column.

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The signing of junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills should give Nebraska some extra pop in its running game. At least it shows that Frost is serious about finding ways to infuse his speed-based offense with power. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Mills rushed for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman at Georgia Tech and had 1,358 yards and 19 touchdowns at Garden City Community College last year. He’s getting a second chance after some off-the-field problems forced him out at Tech.

Mills’ journey to Lincoln looked tenuous for several weeks, but his marijuana use and traffic citations are small-time offenses. He seems like a good candidate for success under a structured program with strong, positive leadership.

If Mills makes the most of his opportunity, he’ll play a big role as Frost builds a power base for his high-speed, explosive offense.

Up through the college level, at least, that’s the best way to assemble a versatile attack. It makes more sense to have a physical offense with an explosive threat, than to try tacking a power component onto a finesse-based speed scheme. Frost could have stayed at UCF and dominated mid-major college football for decades with speed and finesse. But he wanted to come home and rebuild Nebraska, famously saying he wants to combine Oregon speed with Husker power. If Frost can successfully build more sledgehammer capability into his high-pace offense, it will set the Huskers apart from the garden-variety run-pass option spread sets around the nation.  Mills, who has two years of eligibility left, has the opportunity to be part of that heritage.

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Meanwhile, Austin is trying to stockpile as many promising offensive linemen as he can. And thankfully, the rumor that Zac Taylor might try to woo him to the Cincinnati Bengals as offensive line coach seem to be false. I much prefer the other rumor — the one about Taylor trying to get his old college coach, Bill Callahan, to join him in the Queen City.

In Frost’s first season, Nebraska was sixth in the Big ten in rushing yards per conference game (196.2). Just as importantly, it was tied for second in rushing touchdowns (19), just one behind  Michigan. Compare that to 2017, when NU was last in rushing yards per game (96.8) and tied for 11th in rushing touchdowns (seven).

Some of Frost’s trends will continue. He’ll spread the ball around a lot this fall, just as he did at UCF.

It will be a good sign for the Huskers if Mills has the highest number of carries in 2019. It will mean that the power element of the run game will be at least as prominent as the jet sweeps and outside zones. If they are good between the tackles, and if mobile o-linemen enable them to inflict increasing amounts of damage on the edge with pin-and-pull sweeps, they can win championships. And  they’ll look like Nebraska doing it, which is just what college football needs.

An effective passing game will be needed to advance farther than the Big Ten Championship game, and I think the Huskers will have that. But against Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern, you’ve got to start with running the ball and stopping the run.

A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at tad.stryker@gmail.com