(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)By ERIC OLSONAP Sports Writer
Running back Rex Burkhead is the one sure thing Nebraska’s young and overhauled offense can count on going into the season.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez is coming back from injury, the offensive line is unsettled and the receivers are mostly unproven.
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Burkhead, however, has been extremely dependable and versatile the last two years as Roy Helu Jr.’s backup. The junior from Plano, Texas, will go it alone as the featured back this season after running for 951 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.
Asked if he’s excited about the opportunity to carry 20-25 times a game, Burkhead answers enthusiastically.
”Absolutely,” he said. ”Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m ready for it.”
Burkhead has averaged 11 carries a game in his career, and he’s never had more than 20 in a game. He made the most of his attempts in 2010, posting three 100-yard games and averaging 5.5 yards per run.
His role was magnified when Martinez was limited by injury the second half of the season. To take pressure off Martinez’s backups, Burkhead would sometimes line up in the wildcat formation. He was effective running on direct snaps, and all three of his pass completions out of the wildcat went for touchdowns.
”It’s fun getting back there and acting like you’re the quarterback every now and then,” he said.
Burkhead also caught 15 passes out of the backfield and ran back five punts.
”To whom much is given, much is required,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. ”He’s been given a lot of gifts. He has excellent intelligence. He studies the game. He works his tail off in the offseason. He has broadened his shoulders so he’s able to incorporate whatever is asked of him. He’s put that burden on himself.”
Burkhead took a leadership role preparing his body and mind for Nebraska’s first Big Ten season. Teammates say he was a tireless worker in summer conditioning. He also was voracious in film study.
Brown said he remembers making a casual remark to Burkhead about Nebraska’s 1988 game against Oklahoma State and how that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Barry Sanders, ran for 189 yards and four touchdowns.
Burkhead made a bee line to video coordinator Mike Nobler’s office to request the archived game film.
”Just trying to get down some of his moves and techniques,” Burkhead said. ”He had a knack for making people miss, unlike anyone else. Hopefully I can mimic some of those.”
It didn’t hurt that Sanders, as a Detroit Lion, was Burkhead’s childhood idol. Nobler said Burkhead also comes looking for video of the great NFL running backs of today and clips of the Big Ten defenses the Huskers will face.
”He’d sit there and take notes or other times just watch like some people watch afternoon TV,” Nobler said. ”At the end of the day I walk around and make sure all the projectors are shut off. I’d go into the running backs room and most times I’d find Rex in there and tell him to make sure to turn his projector off before he leaves.”
Film study is so important to Burkhead that he gave a nod to Nobler and his crew by wearing special eye-black strips in the 2009 Holiday Bowl against Arizona. One read ”Neb,” the other ”Video.”
”When they zoomed in on his face,” Nobler said, ”it was a little publicity for us.”
Burkhead said his film sessions confirm that defenses in the Big Ten will be bigger and more physical than the ones he went against the Big 12. Six of the top 45 rushing defenses last season were from the Big Ten, and Ohio State and Iowa were in the top six.
The Huskers will counter with a new, up-tempo system under first-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
”We’ve had some scrimmages against the 1s where everything is clicking,” Burkhead said. ”It’s very organized. Everybody knows where they need to line up. It’s fast-paced when we get it going.”
Brown said Burkhead will be vital regardless of how the Huskers choose to attack the opposition.
”The fire is burning inside him,” Brown said. ”He wants to be great.”