Burkhead carrying heavy load for No. 19 Nebraska
Nebraska coaches apparently don’t believe in too much of a good thing, not when it comes to Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead has almost half the Cornhuskers’ offensive touches – the combined number of rushing attempts and pass receptions – in their five Big Ten games.
He twisted his left ankle on the third play from scrimmage last week against Northwestern, and then was involved on eight of the next 13 plays.
Burkhead, who finished with 22 carries for 69 yards and five catches for 34 yards, acknowledged that he wasn’t right after his ankle was hurt.
”No excuse,” he said. ”You just keep playing and you should be able to fight through that.”
Burkhead will get one of his toughest tests of the season Saturday when the 19th-ranked Huskers (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) go against the stout defense of No. 12 Penn State (8-1, 5-0).
Burkhead’s off day against the Wildcats, which followed a career-high 35 carries against Michigan State the week before, has led some to wonder whether he’s overworked.
”I think he’ll tell us when he’s overworked,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. ”He’s pretty good about that if something’s not right. As long as he can keep going and wants the ball, we’re going to keep giving it to him.”
The junior from Plano, Texas, was nicknamed ”Superman” in high school, and his Nebraska teammates speak of his work ethic and approach to the game with awe.
”I don’t think Rex Burkhead can be overworked,” receiver Kenny Bell said.
Burkhead has 136 of the Huskers’ 319 offensive touches (43 percent) the past five games. No other non-quarterback in the Big Ten except Penn State’s Silas Redd (137) has more touches.
Burkhead, unlike Redd, also runs back punts and has made three fair catches but no returns in conference play.
There are other workhorses around the nation. San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman touches the ball on just over half his team’s plays, and Western Kentucky’s Bobby Rainey does so on 57 percent.
At Nebraska it’s been argued that Burkhead’s almost never-ending presence on the field has held back the emergence of talented freshman running backs Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Aaron Green. Coach Bo Pelini said, in retrospect, he would have liked to have rested Burkhead more against Northwestern.
”He said he felt good going in and I thought he looked good early,” Pelini said. ”He took a shot that affected him a little bit.”
Abdullah, one of the top kickoff returners in the nation, had his one and only rushing attempt against Northwestern on the second play from scrimmage. The last carries for Heard and Green came in garbage time of the 24-3 win over Michigan State.
”I just think some of the games have been tight,” Beck said. ”We’re trying to get them in. We just haven’t had a chance to get them in. It’s always hard. You want to play, obviously, and they just have to be patient. There’s going to come a time where they’ll get theirs.”
The increased workload for Burkhead comes after he shared playing time with Roy Helu Jr. the last two years.
His touches this season are double what they were a year ago.
Burkhead, who needs 49 yards rushing to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, said he knew coming into the season that he would be the focal point of the offense. He worked with strength coach James Dobson over the summer on injury-prevention techniques – ”little shoulder or ankle exercises,” he calls them.
Burkhead’s practice repetitions have been curtailed in recent weeks so he can be at this best for games. Even ”Superman” feels the wear and tear.
”It’s week 10. No one is going to feel like he did in week one or week two,” offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. ”That guy takes a beating in every game we play. He’s going to keep firing through it. He gets stronger as the season goes on. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Nothing illustrated Burkhead’s importance to the offense more than when Pelini rushed across the field in a panic to check on his star running back after he stayed down on the field following a play against Michigan State. Pelini was relieved when the athletic trainer told him it was just a cramp. Burkhead came out of the game for one play, then caught a touchdown pass when he returned.
”My competitive nature, I want to be out there,” he said. ”If I feel I can’t help the team, that’s something I have to step in and tell the coaching staff and (they have to) get somebody else in there. As long as I can contribute in some way, I’m going to stay out there.”