Over the summer, Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held didn’t mince words about the challenge in front of Rahmir Johnson.
The NU redshirt freshman running back isn’t old, by any stretch of the imagination, but going into his third year of college football, Johnson faced something of a career crossroads. He had not yet established himself as a regular for the Huskers, and NU had several younger players Held was eager to give opportunities to.
“I had a meeting with him and I said, 'Here’s the deal: Your back’s against the wall. You either figure it out or you’ll get passed,’” Held recalled Tuesday.
Johnson figured it out.
It led to the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder’s first career start Saturday at Oklahoma. Johnson took advantage, too, compiling 90 total yards of offense on 14 touches.
There’s more work to be done, of course, particularly after freshman Gabe Ervin suffered a season-ending patellar tendon injury in the third quarter. But the fact that Johnson responded to the challenge is a good sign in its own right.
“Kids these days, they’ve got one of two choices when their back’s against the wall,” Held said. “They either respond, which is obviously what he’s done, or they get in the transfer portal.”
“I love Rahmir,” junior quarterback Adrian Martinez said Monday. “The guy is very consistent. A consistent teammate and consistent player. He shows up every day and knows what he’s doing and plays his tail off.
“I was really excited for him to finally get that opportunity and go out there and show what he can do.”
Johnson had 11 carries for 42 yards and hauled in three catches for 48. His work in the passing game included a screen that went for a big play and a catch in the flat on NU’s opening drive that very nearly turned into an explosive play.
“He earned the opportunity and I think he did a lot of really good things out there on Saturday when you graded it,” Held said. “It wasn’t perfect, I’d have liked to have a couple plays back, but for the most part he did a good job of doing the things needed. Obviously we need more and we’ll continue to press him to do that along with the other guys.”
Johnson struggled with being consistent during the 2020 season, according to Held, and then missed most of spring ball with an injury. Since preseason camp began, though, he’s made his charge up the depth chart.
“In practice sometimes, he’d just glide and I’d say, 'Hey, gliding is not going to work. You’ve got to turn on the jets,’” Held said. “He’s really just practiced with a sense of purpose and with a chip in the sense of, he wanted to play and he wanted me to play him, and he’s earned it.”
The other guys, too, each move up a rung with Ervin out. Markese Stepp didn’t have a carry against Oklahoma and Sevion Morrison had just one, but both figure to join Johnson in the top three as the season goes along. Nebraska coaches have been adamant that the starting job is up for grabs on a weekly basis, and Ervin, Stepp and Johnson have already earned the nod over NU’s first four games.
Held on Tuesday said that freshmen Jaquez Yant and Marvin Scott each have to be ready to get into the action now that Ervin is done for the year.
“All those guys want to play, right? We don’t want guys here that don’t want to play,” Held said. “I really think for the most part my group has been really good teammates, being really supportive of the other at a position where guys want to play. Who doesn’t? For the most part, I think they’ve done a really good job. It’s not perfect, but they came in on Monday, obviously with Gabe’s situation, the next guy’s got to be ready to go.”
Held said that Yant’s main issue has been his weight, but that he’s dropped some in recent weeks.
“He’s a different guy when he’s at the weight that he’s at compared to where he was at before,” Held said.
Before the season, Nebraska was hoping to identify a lead back and roll with him.
“It hasn’t worked out that way,” coach Scott Frost said Monday.
Johnson is the latest to get a chance at the top of the depth chart. Now the challenge is to stay there.
Contact the writer at email@example.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.