- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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There's a vacant U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska. If Rex Burkhead were a few years older, he might have tried to claim it in November.
Burkhead is a folk hero in the Cornhusker State, by far Nebraska's most popular player. The senior running back has won over the Husker faithful with his production, versatility, durability, humility and success both on and off the field. No one in Big Red country needs to be convinced that Burkhead is among college football's best players.
Burkhead also has little to prove in the Big Ten after rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns on a hoss-like 283 carries (21.8 per game). He recorded a league-high 197 carries in conference games in 2011, averaging 106 yards and scoring eight touchdowns.
But on a national scale, Burkhead remains fairly anonymous. Most preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists include Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, a 2011 Heisman finalist, and always electric Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, but good luck finding Burkhead's name here, here or here. Burkhead's backfield mate, mercurial Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez, might be a bigger name nationally than No. 22.
Why doesn't Burkhead's name resonate beyond Big Ten borders?
"The right people know," senior linebacker Will Compton said, "as far as next level [NFL], things like that. Coaches know, scout personnel knows. Rex, he's going to get more national recognition. Coach Bo [Pelini] and all that, we've never really been the team that goes out and sells players. But Rex, he'll have the right attention at the right time. He's a well-respected athlete and ... more eyes will be on him. People will understand what he's all about."
Burkhead isn't one for self-promotion and almost seems pained at times talking about his success. Nebraska hasn't launched a national awards campaign for Burkhead like Wisconsin has for Ball. Robinson, meanwhile, needs no PR push. As he mentioned during his players' speech Friday at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, President Obama and LeBron James both know who he is.
While Burkhead doesn't yet have that same reach, Pelini thinks he should. The Huskers coach raved about his running back last week at Big Ten media days, calling the senior "the definition of what a role model is and what a student-athlete should be."
"The things he does in our community, the type of leader he is, the type of example he sets on a daily basis, what he's accomplished in the classroom, I wouldn't trade him for another player in the country," Pelini said.
Burkhead can help his cause with some big performances early in the season, particularly during a Week 2 clash against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. He also might need a signature moment or two. He had a career-long 52-yard run last season against Fresno State, but he had no run of longer than 22 yards in Big Ten play.
"Just like Montee Ball, he can go through you or around you," Compton said. "... He's got some moves. Even though we know what he can do, it still surprises you and amazes you, watching him in practice, what he can do. Heck, he runs the Wildcat, he takes handoffs, he catches passes, throws it. Rex is a special guy."
2hDavid M. Hale