No, Nebraska didn’t lose Roy Helu Jr.
That would be a disaster.
But losing Rex Burkhead isn’t exactly an easy one to gloss over either.
He was the Huskers’ second leading rusher, averaging over five yards per carry, scoring once. Add another touchdown from the receiving aspect, where he averaged over 13 yards per reception through five games. Just for good measure, throw in his duties on both kickoff and punt returns, the return game on punts his best stat, where he averaged over 18 yards per in four opportunities.
He’s played every single game, as well.
But let’s get into why this is such a big loss outside of the obvious production:
That’s almost like saying “she has a great personality”, because in the football world it might be taken to imply that you can’t make plays. We have already seen that he can do that from his average per rush. But he’s done that in the most important way:
Not counting the muffed punt against Missouri amidst a deluge, Burkhead has been almost unconscious with the ball, meaning that once he gets it, that’s where it stays. He’s as tough of a runner as Nebraska has, always runs with his eyes up and feet moving forward and he knows how to get the tough yards.
You don’t see the kid go down on first contact. It’s usually in the second level when someone finally gets him down.
In addition, the kid is just tough.
Tough minded, tough running, tough to bring down.
And by all accounts, tremendously respected by everyone. “He’s a prideful-tough-competitive guy,” Pelini said of the Texas native. “I feel worse for him, but we’ll be alright.”
I’m not so sure about that. Point of fact, when it comes to an actual game, I don’t know how sure anyone can be of any of the backs who will now be looked to as a replacement.
From the outset of the season Burkhead has been the guy to back up the guy, and we have seen some other backs get in from time-to-time.
But not much.
In total, between sophomores Marcus Mendoza and Austin Jones along with redshirt freshman Lester Ward and Collins Okafor as well as true freshman Dontrayevous Robinson, you have six carries and 28 yards.
And what you might get with any one of them or perhaps all of them is something that Burkhead had to prove he could do and now they will have to as well, but won’t have the Sun Belt teams to prove it against.
Burkhead made it almost an afterthought as he proved through most of the first five games that once he had it, he wasn’t giving it up.
Maybe it goes back to a little thing they did during Fall Camp, where a freshman or upper classmen had to carry a ball around with them for an entire day. They couldn’t lose it to a member of the other class or it was a “pencil roll” down the length of the field. A pencil roll is laying down horizontal to the yard lines and just rolling for 100 yards.
I’ve heard of players throwing up after that drill.
But that was it, and Burkhead, the true freshman, was the first guy who got that dubious honor.
And he paid.
Even a running back who isn’t here anymore noted when it came to his own turn to carry the ball, he knew he wouldn’t see anything close to what Rex did. “He had practice all day. I can tell you that. That boy went through hell,” Quentin Castille said after one Fall practice. “You weren’t suppose to have a lot of people jump you. You weren’t supposed to have people messing with your stuff. But they did all that to Rex, and he came out of not one, but two dog piles with that ball in his hand. He got a ton of respect that day.”
Fellow running back Jones said that the best thing about Burkhead and why he already saw him as a type of leader was that he didn’t want to be. He just was. “He was hungry. He was humble and he worked hard. If you do that as a freshman, you’ll get the respect and that’s what he’s done,” he said.
But back to ball security and handling the ball, I think we have seen that no matter how many times you rep in practice, there are still going to be issues. It was an enormous thorn in Nebraska’s side last year as they lost 17 fumbles . That, as you would imagine, was a major factor in the Huskers’ turnover margin being so bad in respect to the rest of the country, the Huskers ranking 107th out of 119 teams.
They tie for 15th and they have two fumbles lost on the year. You know when those happened? Yep, during the Missouri monsoon, one being a ball which went off the heal of linebacker Matt May on a punt return and the other a bad snap from senior center Jacob Hickman which quarterback Zac Lee couldn’t handle before Missouri recovered.
Turnover margin will keep you in a game or if it’s bad, take you right out of it.
Nebraska has been very good about ball security this year, and even in the five-inch-in-three-hour downpour that was the contest in Columbia, Zac Lee didn’t throw the ball to the other team. You worry about ball security issues with new players for a reason.
We worried about them with Rex, and he proved he could hold onto it, handle and perform.
Now someone else has to do that.
Losing Burkhead for any amount of time isn’t the end of the world, but it’s definitely not going to make it a happier place, at least right now.
Whoever is behind Helu Jr. is going to have to come in right now, take similar amount of reps and try and do what Burkhead did.
I wouldn’t expect anyone to do that right away, but Nebraska needs to find someone who can keep taking the weight off Helu’s shoulders which in some instances, Burkhead did and well. As we saw with Helu toward the end of the Missouri game on that outside stretch running play where he held his shoulder after he jaunted in for the TD….he’s not indestructible.
Nor is “Superman”, as Burkhead was dubbed from his almost legendary high school career.
They don’t need Superman to take his place, but they need someone who is dependable. We just don’t know who that will be.