Your mind drifts to surprising places as you watch replays of Nebraska football games during the program’s glory days of yore.
It happened to me earlier this week while watching Nebraska’s home game against Notre Dame in 2001. BTN showed the contest. Thank you, BTN. It was an absolute joy watching I-back Dahrran Diedrick repeatedly slam into the heart of the Irish defense. Former Husker head coach Frank Solich essentially eschewed the perimeter that night — not many down-the-line option plays. But there was a heavy dose of Diedrick blasting into contact between the hashes, a thumper doing his thing.
Yeah, I often miss those days.
Which perhaps explains why my thoughts drifted to Jaquez Yant, a Nebraska freshman walk-on running back from Amos P. Godby High School in Tallahassee, Florida. I’m not going to go overboard with praise of the young man. I’ve watched him live only once, in a practice last weekend. That’s it. No games. But I’ll say this: He’s all of 6-foot-2 and all of 225 pounds, his official listed weight. His coaches say he’s closer to 245 or even 250.
His coaches also are giving Yant positive reviews. He’s become a source of intrigue this spring, if nothing else.
He roars into contact, a thumper doing his thing.
“He’s a big running back, and when he hits the ball downfield, he plays with a lot of passion and force,” Nebraska tight ends coach Sean Beckton said Wednesday. “He’s just got to be more consistent with what he’s doing offensively. But he’s been a big surprise for our entire offensive staff, how well he’s running the football. Really, all the running backs have been doing a great job. But he’s really stood out, as a walk-on, being a guy who might be able to give us some snaps this year.”
Nebraska secondary coach Travis Fisher, a graduate of Amos P. Godby High, played a leading role in Yant’s recruitment.
“Jaquez had a long road in high school academically,” Fisher said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do since he’s been here. And right now, I’m so proud of him because his grades are right. He has very good grades right now. Everybody back home is proud of him.
“And then, he’s making his name here. He’s a problem (for the defense), I’ll tell you that.”
Yant rushed 99 times for 583 yards (5.9 per carry) and 10 touchdowns in 13 games as a senior at Amos P. Godby. As a junior, he rushed 108 times for 908 yards (8.4) and 10 TDs, along with 12 catches for 150. He drew interest from Mississippi, Southern Miss and UAB, among others.
When he arrived in Lincoln last July, Beckton said, Yant was “out of shape and couldn’t sustain more than two reps.”
And now? “He’s got a chance to really help this football team,” the coach said.
Yant has taken advantage of a slew of Nebraska running backs missing practices. USC transfer Markese Stepp recently had foot surgery and is sidelined indefinitely. Redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson and freshman Sevion Morrison have missed multiple practices, and redshirt freshman Ronald Thompkins also has missed time. True freshman Gabe Ervin has drawn praise from coaches this spring, but he was sidelined Saturday, when media were invited to watch an entire practice for the first time since Scott Frost took over as head coach in late 2017.
An integral part of a running back’s ability is his availability.
Yant is willing and available.
“I don’t know how much he’s weighing, but he’s probably 245, 250,” Fisher said. “He’s a problem. He’s fast. And he’s a problem. He gives our guys problems all the time. I don’t know where he’s sitting right now on offense because I’m too busy worrying about defense. But when he’s in the game, we know he’s in the game.”
It’s no secret Nebraska needs to get more out of its running backs. The RBs on the roster who played in 2020 — Marvin Scott, Johnson, Thompkins and walk-on Cooper Jewett — combined to average 3.1 yards per carry.
They have to earn coaches’ trust. I get it, though. One can understand if Frost is tempted to lean on quarterback Adrian Martinez in the running game, because as good as Martinez looked running the ball last season, he looks even better now. He’s leaned up. He looks faster, shiftier.
That said, Martinez’s backups have zero collegiate game experience. So, Frost had better take some steps to help keep Martinez healthy. Nebraska likely needs Martinez in the lineup if it expects to challenge for first place in the Big Ten West Division and reach a bowl game. A bowl game has become a minimum expectation of many fans in Frost’s fourth year. That’s fair.
But you can’t lean too hard on Martinez. So, better get those backs going.
“It’s been good,” Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin said of the running game this spring. “We’ve been going back and forth and we’ve been, certainly up front, talking about the details and the explosion and establishing the line of scrimmage. Those are the things we’ve been working on. Finishing blocks. That’s been good. It’s just, again, consistency.”
As for Yant, “He’s a big back. Big, fast back,” Austin said. “He plays downhill with his pads. He’s going to bring some thunder to you. Hell, the offensive linemen, we’ve got to get our ass out of the way because he might run us over, you know? He’s taking advantage of all the reps he’s received and he’s done well. He’s been active, he’s doing a good job overall. So we’ve certainly enjoyed having him back there. Just a pretty solid guy, solid back.”
Yant shows up daily. That alone can get you noticed in this world.
Weighing 245 pounds and running fast also helps.
Photos: What a Husker football practice (with fans!) looks like
Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.