LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska knew what it had early when its new, shifty freshman running back named Rex Burkhead showed up on campus.
"Right when he came into camp, he had the “get it” factor. He got it right away," said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. "In practice, he was very, very good, and when he takes it to the field, it translates and it’s natural. There’s not a lot of coaching you have to do. He’s just a natural player."
Watson got Burkhead involved in the offense early, trying to increase his role as the season progressed and the college game in front of him slowed. Watson knew he could contribute to an offense lacking in proven playmakers, but a stress fracture forced him out of five games in the middle of the conference season.
"That really hurt our team offensively. That really hurt us," Watson said. "We like to run two or three backs, and now we’re down to Roy [Helu Jr.]."
Once Burkhead returned, he delivered on the potential he showed early on, stating his case for a starting job. In each Nebraska's final three games, he carried the ball at least 17 times and ran for 92 yards in the Holiday Bowl win over Arizona. He notched his first 100-yard performance against Colorado a month earlier.
"The offensive line opened up some good holes in that game. I was able to get some good runs so that was a good start," Burkhead said.
But Burkhead still sees his role as complementary. ("Right now it’s still Roy’s starting job and I’m there whenever he needs a break," Burkhead says.) Nebraska will use both Burkhead and Helu Jr., along with bruising 230-pound Dontrayevous Robinson, who was forced into action from the scout team last season after Burkhead's injury held him out and Helu Jr.'s action was limited by injury as well.
In games as a featured back against Iowa State and Baylor, Robinson ran for 77 and 61 yards, respectively.
"You’ve got to have multiple backs," Burkhead said. "There’s injuries and teams use running backs so much, it’s good to have a little mix-up, change it up a little bit with different styles of runners. It just helps out the team."
Nebraska will mix it up even more with Burkhead, a former high school quarterback, keying the Wildcat formation that saw plenty of air time in the Holiday Bowl.
"I don’t know what Rex can’t do," Watson said. "Will it be something that we do? Yeah, we’ll always have the ability to do it. It’ll depend on the game plan. ... Will it be a huge part of what we do? No. But will it be a part? Yes, but it’s just a segment."
Burkhead will be more than just a small segment of a Nebraska offense looking for improvement.