LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — With Rex Burkhead's status in doubt, Ameer Abdullah says he is prepared to take over again as Nebraska's featured back in what could be the Cornhuskers' most important game of the regular season.
It's a role Abdullah is familiar with, given that Burkhead has missed all or part of five games.
Coach Bo Pelini said Monday his inclination would be to rest Burkhead at least a week after the senior re-aggravated a knee injury against Northwestern. He said the athletic medicine staff and Burkhead himself will have a big say about his availability for Saturday's home game against No. 20 Michigan.
"We'll proceed cautiously," Pelini said. "He's a lot better today. He was a lot better yesterday, but even better today."
The Huskers (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) can take control of the Legends Division with a win over Michigan (5-2, 3-0). The Wolverines, who beat Nebraska 45-17 last year in Ann Arbor, will be making their first visit to Lincoln since 1911.
Nebraska goes into the game with the Big Ten's top rushing offense, and Abdullah is a big reason why. The sophomore from Homewood, Ala., has 105 carries, more than twice as many as Burkhead, and is averaging a team-leading 88 yards a game.
Abdullah said he and fellow running backs Braylon Heard and Imani Cross prepare each week as if one will be called on to carry the load.
"I don't take the week differently, depending on (potential) workload," Abdullah said. "I try to stay consistent."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said his defense will be challenged regardless of who carries the ball for Nebraska.
"Burkhead is a guy who is very physical, smart football player, very instinctive," Hoke said. "I think he's as good a back as we have in this league, and Abdullah is a little different... I think they're both a complement to what they're doing offensively."
Burkhead, a first-team All-Big Ten pick last season and the Huskers' No. 6 career rusher, strained a ligament in his left knee in the first quarter of the opener against Southern Mississippi and missed the next two games. He aggravated the injury in the third quarter of the Oct. 6 game against Ohio State, after running for 119 yards.
Burkhead was re-injured on his fourth carry against Northwestern, on the Huskers' second offensive series. It was the latest setback for a player projected to be a middle-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
"He's frustrated and obviously disappointed he's been having to deal with this," Pelini said. "It's been too bad."
Burkhead has a reputation for being a tireless worker, and when nicked up he's been known to refuse coaches' offers to go easy at practice.
"You have to temper down what he wants to do," Pelini said. "At the same time you have to take into account how he feels about it and the way he wants to attack it."
Abdullah ran for 101 yards against Northwestern and is on track for a 1,000-yard season. He also has 15 catches for 129 yards.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder was known for his shiftiness as a backup last season. He still can get to the edge and break away, but added muscle has helped him develop into a tough between-the-tackles runner. He also is a willing blocker in pass protection.
"Just because you're smaller doesn't mean you can't break tackles," he said. "That's how I like to carry myself. I don't like to just carry myself as a speed back because that's not what I am."
The differences between this year and last year, he said, are his confidence and work habits.
"Talent only takes you so far," he said. "You get in the film room, put in the extra hours, and it takes you to the next level."