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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I-Back Analysis

The I-back battle continues to rage during the second week of Fall camp. Tuesday’s scrimmage saw Brandon Jackson and Kenny Wilson each break long scoring runs. The high level of competition illustrates that a log-jam still exists, despite the transfer of Leon Jackson. Some will argue that you can never have too much depth or talent at a position, or that this “is a good problem to have.” While true in many cases, at this point I would gladly trade a talented RB who is stuck at fourth on the depth chart, for a game-ready backup QB, a safety with some meaningful experience, a battle-tested nickel back, or a dominating offensive lineman. The truth of the matter is that the balance of talent on this squad is a skewed toward the running backs.

I stand by my previous statement that the I-back who best protects Zac Taylor will see the most playing time. However, I’m not sure the depth chart will ever shakeout in a manner that produces a clear cut number one guy. Coach Callahan will likely use a "running backs by committee" approach. This approach, which is popular in the NFL will spread the carries out amongst the backs and may ease discontent. The downsides of situation-based personnel moves, however, are that they can prevent a player from getting into the rhythm of the game and also tip off the offense’s intentions. For a perfect example of this, think back to a mic’d up John Lynch laughing that the Bucs knew every play that was coming in Super Bowl XXXVII against Callahan’s Raiders.

Another problem with the committee approach is that a player is never certain if, and when, his carries are going to come. Case in point, Cody Glenn combined for 24 carries in back-to-back games with Texas Tech and Baylor in 2005. He then had just 7 carries combined in the next two games against Missouri and Oklahoma. Additionally, when most teams split carries at running back it is generally among two talented players rather than four. Because of this, and given that Callahan has occasionally been criticized for going away from the run at inopportune times, there might not be enough carries to go around in Lincoln. And if the carries aren’t there, or if the offensive line can't get enough push, then we’ll see a bigger waste of talent than Jenna Jameson posing for a parka catalog.

For now, however, lets examine what the coaching staff is dealing with:

Cody Glenn (So.): At 6’0”, 230 lbs Cody is a “big back” who has displayed a powerful running style. Glenn fights hard to move the chains and lost yardage on just one of his 45 carries in 2005. Looks capable of being an every down type of back, but hasn’t shown breakaway speed. He seems to have the confidence of his teammates and was named the Most Improved Offensive Player in the Spring. Looked to be the man to beat going into Fall Camp.

Career Stats:
Games: 7
Att: 45
Yds: 131
Avg: 2.91
TD: 4

Marlon Lucky (So.): Was considered the gem of the 2005 recruiting class after earning Parade All-America honors by scoring 40 touchdowns as a senior at North Hollywood (Calif.) High. Has thus far failed to consistently show the talent that is evident in his high school tapes. Played tentatively and looked lost at times last season. Development has been slowed by a propensity to bounce plays to the outside rather than waiting for holes to develop. Flashed signs of his breakaway speed on kickoff returns including a touchdown that was called back against Kansas. May have the greatest upside potential if his grasp of the playbook and pass protection improve markedly.

Career Stats:
Games: 12
Att: 43
Yds: 129
Avg: 3.00
TD: 0

Brandon Jackson (Jr.): Seemingly the forgotten one amongst this group. Should be comfortable with the offense as he enters his third season in the system. Missed entire Spring while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Has showed at times that he is more than capable as a runner. Had extremely productive freshman year. Most forget his 390 rushing yards in 2004, which were the ninth-most ever by a Husker freshman. Has decisive running style and hits the hole hard. Many assume he starts the season fourth on the depth chart, but don’t count out his heart and desire.

Career Stats
Games: 19
Att: 93
Yds: 442
Avg: 4.59
TD: 6

Kenny Wilson (Jr.): Probably the wildcard of the group. Considered the top-ranked JUCO running back after a successful stint at Butler Community College. Picked the Huskers over Florida and Tennessee. Certainly passes the eyeball test and was reportedly very impressive at summer workouts. Has track speed that has translated over to the football field at high school and junior college levels. Will lag behind the others until he becomes more comfortable with the playbook. If his pass protection is solid, he could be used in situational packages that utilize his skills until he has had more time to digest the playbook. If his junior college films can be believed, he might be the most complete back on the roster.

Career Stats:

I imagine that we'll see all four players early in the season. Beyond that I'm not sure that we will have one back clearly separate himself from the pack. Instead, I could see anyone of these guys stepping up and providing a spark in a particular game. Therefore, if the coaching staff can encourage continued competetion, utilize the players' individual skills with packages and gameplans that cater to these, and keep the stable of backs happy, Nebraska's running game should be vastly improved.