Once they were the mainstays, Omaha kids powering the Nebraska I-formation.
Keith Jones (Central). Ken Clark (Bryan). Leodis Flowers (Central). Calvin Jones (Central). Ahman Green (Central). Backups like Damon Benning (Northwest) and Clinton Childs (North).
In 10 of the 12 seasons between 1986 and 1997, an I-back from Omaha led the Huskers in rushing.
But as with national championships, it’s been a generation-long dry spell for Omaha’s best running backs being good enough to help the Huskers. Only David Horne (Central), who last played for the Huskers in 2004, has put up more than 1,000 yards … in a career. The aforementioned pack from 1986-97 had seven 1,000-yard seasons.
The last to start in the Husker backfield? Tierre Green, three games in 2004.
Jaylin Bradley last season got the most action since Green (Benson), and that was 24 carries for 93 yards for the freshman from Bellevue West.
So what’s happened? Part of it is NU repeatedly changing offensive philosophies — while turning over coaches — and the rest is simply Omaha not churning out FBS-level running backs. Some of that goes hand-in-hand.
Tom Osborne had playmaker quarterbacks, but they were distributors first who used I-backs to set up the rest of the offense. Starting with Frank Solich’s use of Eric Crouch — fitting the skill-set Crouch developed at Millard North under Fred Petito — NU’s quarterbacks have been the main men.
Jammal Lord in 2002 and 2003 after Crouch in 1999 made it three of Solich’s six seasons that a quarterback led the team in rushing. Then came the shift to throwing quarterbacks. Only once since Bo Pelini arrived in 2004 — in 2013 with Ameer Abdullah — has a running back had more yards in a season than his quarterback.
Omaha coaches have followed suit in their offenses. In 2017, 10 of the 17 Metro teams had 1,000-yard rushers. And 10 had 1,000-yard passers. Three topped 2,000 and two got close to 3,000. The playmakers are increasingly passers and receivers.
It’s not like the Huskers are losing out in recruiting, either. Get past Stevie Hicks (Creighton Prep) at Iowa State and Kenton Keith (Benson) at New Mexico State — and Keith went on to a short NFL career — and no other Omahan has started at running back elsewhere in FBS since 1997.
The best running backs here in the past five years have been Bradley, Calvin Strong, Milton Sargbah and Zander Gray of Omaha North and Moses Bryant of Elkhorn South. Bradley, Sargbah and Bryant were the All-Nebraska running backs in 2016, the strongest trio from the Metro since 1989 when all three went high D-I — Calvin Jones, Rob DeBoer of Burke to South Carolina and Jason Williams of Creighton Prep to Iowa State.
Because of academics, Bradley accepted a late scholarship offer from NU last year and Bryant is walking on, though he could end up at defensive back. Sargbah hoped for a Husker offer and when it wasn’t made, he elected to sign Wednesday with Iowa Western in Council Bluffs.
Strong was at South Dakota for a time but is out of football presently. Gray is a junior with FCS, but not FBS, offers to date.
In Scott Frost’s new offense, NU will be looking for playmakers. Mainstays. Finally, Omaha may have two in the mix.