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Nebraska looks for new I-back as iconic position evolves under Riley

Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo (22) catches a pass during practice Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. Nebraska is scheduled to play Tennessee in the NCAA college football Music City Bowl Friday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/AP photo

One of the most iconic positions in college football is the Nebraska I-back. The program stamped its own brand on a position commonly known as the tailback in the I formation. The Cornhuskers’ success over the last half century has been dictated by the running ability of players like Mike Rozier, I.M. Hipp, Jeff Kinney and Ahman Green.

In 2017, in addition to breaking in a new quarterback plus finding depth and production at wide receiver, Nebraska needs to replace starting I-back Terrell Newby, a solid and reliable runner. Ameer Abdullah, one of Newby’s recent predecessors, is a big believer in the importance of the Huskers having a viable ground game.

“I feel like in order for Nebraska to be a really dynamic offense like they can be this year, their running game has to be consistent,” said Abdullah, who ended his four-year career in 2014 as the school’s second-leading rusher. “It’s hard to rely on just a passing game to get it done for you all the time. … I don’t think it’s smart to put it all on them and rely on the passing game to dictate the direction of the offense.”

Who gets the bulk of playing time as Newby’s replacement will be interesting but how the I-back is used might be more fascinating to watch. Third-year coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf don’t track carries as much as they do touches. That means that the success of the team’s I-backs this season won’t be determined only by rushing attempts and total yards.

Nebraska hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in any of the past two seasons. The last time the Huskers went three seasons without a back cracking the four-digit barrier was 1974-76. School records go back to 1946 and the last time Nebraska went four seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher came between the first players to reach that plateau – Bobby Reynolds in 1950 and Kinney in 1971.

Riley and Langsdorf prefer a pro-style offense with an accurate quarterback throwing from a clean and static pocket. In Riley’s first two seasons in Lincoln, the offense was tweaked to take advantage of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., whose running ability surpassed his passing accuracy.

“We are going to have to have some things in the running (game) that replace a lot of the quarterback ones that we had a year ago,” Riley said. “We’ve got to do a better job of establishing an identity in the running game. If you’re going to have a quarterback who isn’t a primary runner like Tommy was you better have a draw game, screen game, a quick game. You better have some stuff that helps the line.”

Junior Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane, has been named the starter to replace Armstrong. Instead of option pitches made on the edge by the quarterback, the Huskers’ I-backs will be used more in the passing game with screens and swing routes a high priority. Plus, they’ll be expected to improve their blocking and blitz recognitions.

“Yeah, it was definitely one thing that they harped on a lot, obviously, is catching the ball and pass (protection),” said Huskers I-back Devine Ozigbo, a top candidate to winning the starting position. “It’s definitely a good opportunity. (If the quarterbacks are) going to check it down, we have to make sure to catch the ball.”

Ozigbo, a 6-foot, 230-pound junior, finished last season with 412 yards and five touchdowns. Most of that production came in the first half of the season. After suffering an injury against Indiana, Ozigbo missed four games and when he returned had just 13 carries in the last two games. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season; as a freshman in 2015, he averaged 5.5.

Junior Mikale Wilbon and sophomore Tre Bryant are also top candidates to see action at I-back. Wilbon, a 5-9, 195-pounder, has shown flashes of his ability but also evokes frustration because of his inconsistency. Bryant is a 5-11, 200-pounder who last season was solid in pass protection and as a receiver. He could become Nebraska’s I-back in passing situations.

“A lot of times the defense can dictate where you’re going to be going with the football,” Riley explained, “and so when our tight end can be productive and can be a threat, and the defense knows it, then they can’t so often flat out double-cover your wide receivers, then you’ve got it going on.

“So if our tight end and our slot back — and especially our running back — can catch some balls, then life will be better.”

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