Big 12: Lester Ward
Nebraska freshman running back Rex Burkhead will be sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury that was sustained in practice on Monday.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told reporters Tuesday that Burkhead will be sidelined "for awhile" and offered no other specifics.
Burkhead is Nebraska's second-leading rusher with 23 carries for 118 yards and has also added eight receptions for 66 yards. He has been a key contributor on offense and special teams.
“Any time you have a football player out, you're going to miss him," Pelini said. Tuesday "I feel worse for the kid. He's a prideful, tough competitive guy."
The emergence of Burkhead helped fill the spot on Nebraska's roster where Quentin Castille played before he was kicked off the team before the season started.
The injury could be significant for the Cornhuskers as they prepare for Saturday's game against Texas Tech.
Leading rusher Roy Helu Jr. appeared to be dinged at the end of the Cornhuskers' 27-10 victory over Missouri last week, wearing a bag of ice strapped around his neck as he limped to the team bus. Helu has returned to practice with the Cornhuskers.
With Burkhead's injury, other players will be featured in Nebraska's running game. Among those mentioned by Pelini at the press conference included Austin Jones, Lester Ward, Collins Okafor, Marcus Mendoza and Dontrayevous Robinson. His special teams use could be filled by freshmen wide receivers Antonio Bell and Tim Marlowe.
Nebraska was my early favorite to win the North Division, mainly because of its improving defense working under Bo Pelini and the Cornhuskers' formidable depth in the backfield.
I've also always said I would reserve a chance to change my mind depending on what happens throughout preseason camp.
Nebraska's abrupt dismissal of Quentin Castille over the weekend for an undisclosed violation of team rules is that big of a hit for the Cornhuskers.
Now, I'm barely slightly toward Kansas, despite the Jayhawks' fearful cross-divisional schedule and that rebuilt defense that has always given me pause.
Castille would have been an important weapon for the Cornhuskers, mainly because he provides depth and a bruising nature to a team looking for that identity.
He was a revelation in the Gator Bowl when he barreled over and through Clemson for 125 yards and nearly 7 yards per carry. More of the same was expected this season, particularly as he kept his weight down and appeared ready to take off where he finished the 2008 season.
Roy Helu Jr. still might be one of the best running backs in the North Division. But the Cornhuskers are going to be asking a lot out of him. He's bulked up from his playing weight from last season and appears to be susceptible to hamstring pulls because of the added weight and muscle. That's not a good sign for a Cornhusker team that doesn't feature an experienced back behind him now.
Even more, he and Helu would have been an ideal tandem. They would have reminded fans of Nebraska's glory days, bringing a physical presence to the Cornhuskers in a league where offense has been marked by passing in recent years.
But as much as anything, the bruising 235-pound Castille offered a nice change of pace from Helu and the other back. He could come in and plow through defenders for a few series while Helu was resting on the sideline. The fact that he is such a physical back would have made him ideal for the Cornhuskers' ball-control offense -- even with his past reputation as a fumbler.
The Cornhuskers will be asking for a huge contribution from Rex Burkhead, a talented freshman from Plano, Texas. They also have sophomore walk-on Austin Jones, the half-brother of Nebraska wide receiver Melenik Holt. Also in the mix will be redshirt freshmen Collins Okafor and Lester Ward and freshman Dontrayevous Robinson. Wide receiver Marcus Mendoza has also moved back to running back as well.
Whether that's enough to get the Cornhuskers through an extended injury in the backfield is anybody's question. But it's definitely sliced into Nebraska's slim margin of error that I gave them when I made them my preseason favorite.
The North Division was going to be tight anyway. And it's just gotten tighter. You can make a point that any of four teams -- Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado -- could win it with enough breaks. The Cornhuskers just sustained the biggest early hit of the preseason.
The loss puts some pressure on Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who in my mind, is one of the best coordinators in the nation.
Watson saw a lot of his 2001 Colorado team in what he had with the C
ornhuskers when Castille was there. That Buffaloes' squad won the Big 12 title with journeyman quarterback Bobby Pesavento starting. They were able to win -- claiming huge upset victories down the stretch against Nebraska and Texas -- thanks to a similar power running game keyed by Chris Brown and Bobby Purify.
Now, the Cornhuskers are going to be asking a lot out junior-college transfer Zac Lee. I know some will say he's started junior college football games before. But he still has never faced a hostile crowd like the one he will be facing in his first two road games when the Cornhuskers visit Virginia Tech on Sept. 19 or in their Oct. 8 conference opener at Missouri.
It will be a huge task, particularly without one of his biggest offensive weapons.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The announcement earlier today by Nebraska coach Bo Pelini that junior I-back Quentin Castille was kicked off the team sent shock waves shooting through the Nebraska program.
The move is potentially very big for the Cornhuskers.
Castille had come on strongly late in his freshman season and was expected to be a big contributor for Nebraska this season. While I doubt he would have beaten out Roy Helu Jr. for the starting job, Castille still would have provided depth and accentuated the team's biggest offensive strength.
It wasn't out of realm of possibility that Castille could have provided 700 or 800 yards from his back-up position. And his departure places further pressure on untested Nebraska starting quarterback Zac Lee.
Castille had been a headache for Pelini in terms of discipline problems throughout his time at Nebraska. He left the program for several weeks earlier in the summer and returned to his home in Texas, professing that the move had made him ready to play under Pelini's rules when he returned.
Also, an arrest warrant was issued for Castille earlier this year after he failed to appear in court on traffic violations. He was later fined for a missing license plate.
"It's pretty black and white, my expectations and what we lay out as a staff," Pelini told reporters when he made the announcement. "And if someone doesn't follow those policies and guidelines, they're no longer going to be with the football team. And that's the case with Quentin."
His departure means there's an immediate opening behind Helu as the Cornhuskers' No. 2 I-back. Freshman Rex Burkhead has looked good in early practices and will inherit the role.
Also, look for Marcus Mendoza to immediately surface back in the mix at running back after spending the previous time at camp at wide receiver in a move that Pelini claimed was unrelated to Castille's ouster.
"We were moving Marcus back there anyway," Pelini said. "It was more of his choice."
Now, he's got a shot at immediate playing time in the Huskers' backfield -- along with a lot of other players.