Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Nebraska I-back Roy Helu Jr. already was prepared to shoulder his share of trying to make the Cornhuskers’ offense productive heading into this season.
As the Cornhuskers attempt to break in a new starting quarterback and two new wide receivers, Helu and the backfield were expected to be the integral part of the team’s offense.
But that preparation for Helu intensified Aug. 22 when Quentin Castille was dismissed from the team because of an undisclosed violation of team rules. The move means that a Cornhuskers offense that was already expected to lean on Helu will likely be depending on him even more when Nebraska starts the season Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
“As a unit, I don’t know how it will affect us,” Helu said. “I think it’s inevitable with me and the other I-backs that we’ll get more work. And absolutely, I’m ready for it.”
Helu and converted wide receiver Marcus Mendoza are the only Nebraska backs with previous college carries.
“Practice is already a lot different now,” Helu said. “I’m excited to see what happens for us this year. It will definitely be a challenge. But I’m looking forward to it."
Helu rushed for 803 yards last season to lead the Cornhuskers, averaging 6.42 yards per carry to lead the team’s primary ball carriers.
And he really came on late in the season, producing three games with at least 100 yards in his final four regular-season games, topped with career-best totals of 25 carries and 166 yards in the Cornhuskers’ victory over Colorado.
With the 235-pound Castille, Helu was expected to contribute to a bruising running style that had earned them the nickname “Thunder and Lightning.”
Now, Helu is bracing for additional work that he had hoped for when he chose Nebraska over BYU, California and Oregon after playing high school football in Danville, Calif.
“It’s been a blessing to come to school here,” Helu said. “They have a strong appreciation for the I-back here and I thank the Lord that I’ve chosen a place where I can run the ball.”
Whether he’s still feeling that way after 30 or 35 carries every Saturday still is to be determined. But Helu is excited about the chance to help his team.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson vowed that Castille’s departure won’t affect his plans for the Cornhuskers’ offense.
“We have a philosophy and we just plug players in,” Watson said. “It won’t change. We’ll do what we would have done with Quentin here, but we have younger players we are developing and move on. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves. We just move forward.”
The move will be helped by having Helu, who has bulked up to about 218 pounds after playing below 200 pounds late last season, physically ready for an increased workload.
“He’s just an awesome back for us,” Watson said. “He’s one of those kids you point to and tell the others that’s what you want them to be like. The tempo he brings to our practices is incredible and he’s just a phenomenal practice player. He’s been a great example for us and we break the new backs in.”
Helu actually told reporters late in the Cornhuskers’ training camp, only a couple of days before Castille was jettisoned, that Castille was at that point the best running back on the Nebraska football team.
“He’s a better player than me right now, and he has been for awhile,” Helu said.
Helu and Castille have developed a close friendship during their time at Nebraska. Castille discussed his playing opportunities with Helu after he left the Cornhuskers until he finally landed at Northwestern State, where he will be eligible immediately and could see action in the Demons’ opener against Houston on Saturday.
“A decision was made from Quentin’s standpoint that affected our team,” Helu said. “Collectively, we as a team talked about it. It [his dismissal] was the best thing for him and for us. We have moved on and wish good things for him as well. I communicate with him nearly every day and hope he’s going to do well with his new school.”
The Cornhuskers were chosen by the Big 12 media as the preseason favorites in the North Division. But that selection obviously was made before Castille’s dismissal and led some to back off on their earlier predictions.
For his part, Helu said he doesn’t care where the Cornhuskers are picked.
“Nothing matters at all to us,” Helu said. “It’s the preseason. It doesn’t mean much one way or the other. Of course, it’s flattering, but in no means is it final or will it decide if we’ve won or lost. We just have to go out and play strong.”
The Cornhuskers are a confident bunch after last season, when they claimed their final four games, capped by the Gator Bowl to finish with a four-game winning streak. That late charge helped the Cornhuskers claim a share of the Big 12 North Division championship and catapults them into 2009 tied with Texas for the longest winning streak in the conference.
“Once we won those games, we had so much confidence and momentum to finish up,” Helu said. “It rolled right in to a great spring and we looked like a new team. Then we went out and developed in fall camp, learning as we went. It’s a process and we’re pushing to keep things going once the season starts.”