LINCOLN, Neb. — Unlike last season, when an injury to running back Rex Burkhead would have devastated Nebraska’s offense, coach Bo Pelini is quite comfortable going with the next man up.
Actually, the next three men up could play a lot for the 17th-ranked Cornhuskers (1-0) in Saturday’s road game against UCLA (1-0).
elini said Monday that Burkhead, a 1,300-yard rusher and All-Big Ten back in 2011, is questionable after an MRI confirmed a mild sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Backups Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross combined for 177 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries after Burkhead left in the first quarter against Southern Mississippi. Abdullah also caught a TD pass.
“We have a lot of confidence in those backs,” Pelini said. “They’re talented guys. I like how they played, how they responded.”
Pelini said Abdullah, a situational player as a freshman last season, can be an every-down back now that he has a better understanding of the spread-option offense. Abdullah had 15 carries for 81 yards against Southern Miss, both career highs, and caught four passes for 39 yards after making just one catch last season.
“I feel for Rex. Hopefully he has a speedy recovery,” Abdullah said. “You never want to see someone like that go down. I’ve got to make the most of it. I’ve got to run the ball for my team. I’m probably going to be the anchor on Saturday so I’ve got to step up.”
Heard appeared in seven games in a mop-up role as a freshman last year, and coaches thought he would have a better chance to get on the field if he changed positions. He worked at cornerback in the spring but moved back to running back after Aaron Green transferred to TCU in June.
Heard ran three times for 34 yards in the opener, including a 20-yard burst and a 10-yard TD.
Cross drew raves in preseason practices, but it wasn’t until the week of the opener that he found out he would play rather than take a redshirt year.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous,” Cross said. “I think I was excited, very excited, happy and full of joy. The first time I went in, I was thinking I really hope I do the right thing and not mess this opportunity up.”
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound freshman made a big impression in his first college game. Cross was on the kickoff return unit and lined up at I-back for the first time in the second quarter. His first carry came in the third quarter, and he ended up with 62 yards on 11 attempts.
“We knew Ameer was going to be a good player for us, and we planned on using him to take some load off Rex,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “Then there’s Braylon and Imani, powerful runner that he is ... We love our stable of running backs and were planning on using them all anyway. It was just earlier than we hoped.”
Pelini said the offensive game plan doesn’t change when Burkhead is out. With Big Ten play still a month away, he won’t put Burkhead back on the field until he’s at or near 100 percent.
“You’re thinking about the season and, obviously, not only the future of the team but Rex’s future,” Pelini said.