Led by Greg Bell, Nebraska running backs showcase ‘exciting’ depth
LINCOLN — Greg Bell is a man of few words. Mikale Wilbon has lately been one of even fewer, opting not to speak with the media during spring practices.
Both running backs let their play do the talking at the spring game Saturday, showing off a variety of skills that have them among the lead contenders for major roles in Nebraska’s offense in a few months.
Bell, a 6-foot, 200-pound San Diego-area product and junior college transfer from Arizona Western, busted a pair of long gains on receptions, taking one from Tristan Gebbia for 22 yards and another from Adrian Martinez for 19. And while he didn’t find the end zone, he lived up to his nickname “The Eel,” quickly sliding through small spaces and gaining 54 yards on eight carries.
“I think I showed what I can do to the fans and everybody that was watching,” Bell said. “It was crazy because I ain’t never played in front of that many people. It was good to go out there and ball out.”
Bell mostly split snaps with Wilbon, the 5-9, 200-pound senior from Chicago who was NU’s second-leading rusher last season. Wilbon was far more efficient Saturday, carrying 10 times for 55 yards (5.4 average), than in 2017 (4.3), though he didn’t catch a pass. A 17-yard scamper in the second quarter set up the Red team on a drive that ended in Martinez’s lone touchdown pass.
“They’re moving me around,” Wilbon said. “I’m starting in the backfield, going to the slot. Starting in the slot, going to the backfield. It’s real fun. That’s all I can really say. The only thing that I gotta get used to is just not huddling and how fast it goes.”
Wilbon and offensive coordinator Troy Walters said the back’s weight will be a key factor in where he fits this fall. Wilbon said he added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason but needs to “get in football shape instead of just weight-room shape.”
Walters wants to see Wilbon reach the point where he can stay on the field for 10 straight plays and run the ball for most of them. If that happens, the coach believes the upperclassman can still be a valuable weapon.
“He’s focused. He kind of reminds me of Marshawn Lynch out there,” Walters said. “Even today he had that look like, ‘Man, this is business. It’s not a scrimmage — this is a game.’ He ran hard. He’s tough to bring down. He’ll continue to get better.”
But Bell was the one Walters brought up when asked who stood out to him from the game. The newcomer checked off the boxes coaches are looking for — running through tackles, getting yards after contact, catching the ball — and did it with the same smoothness and speed he has shown in previous spring workouts.
Coach Scott Frost also said Bell is well on his way to what the Huskers envision him being.
“Greg’s got a gear that is pretty special. I think he’s got good vision,” Frost said. “He’s got to get lined up a little faster, be a little more urgent sometimes but he does some special things when the ball is in his hands.”
Also for the Red team, junior Wyatt Mazour broke a 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and finished with 52 yards on four carries. Senior Devine Ozigbo led the way for the White team with 22 yards on 10 carries and 23 yards on two catches. Sophomore Jaylin Bradley ran seven times for 18 yards.
The running back room will grow next season with the addition of true freshmen Miles Jones and, potentially, Maurice Washington. Junior Tre Bryant (knee) will also be a factor if he is healthy.
“I think we’re gonna have some depth at the running back position, so that’s exciting,” Walters said. “Once defenses get tired, we can put another guy in and kind of wear them down. So, all in all, I thought they played well.”