One of the marks of a good team is its versatility.
When one weapon doesn’t work, another emerges.
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah has been the definition of that flexibility, seamlessly taking the reins as the team’s leader on the field with the status of quarterback Taylor Martinez in flux the last few weeks because of turf toe.
Abdullah proved to be a talented and capable Big Ten back a year ago, when his 81.2 rushing yards per game ranked ninth in the conference.
This year, however, has showcased a new level of dominance from the 5-9 Abdullah. The junior is averaging 136 yards a game, good for second in the Big Ten. In the Huskers’ most recent game, a 44-7 victory over Purdue on Oct. 12, he eclipsed 2,000 career yards. In Nebraska’s 39-19 victory over Illinois in the Big Ten opener, Abdullah rushed for a career-high 225 yards by cutting and dodging and slipping through defenders, netting a pair of touchdowns.
After being recruited by most schools as a defensive back, Abdullah has proved skeptics wrong about his running ability.
From here, though, comes the next test. Offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles has referred to Nebraska’s final six weeks of the schedule as a “meat grinder,” and the competition the Huskers face in the second half should be, in general, much tougher than what they saw in the first. Bo Pelini’s job security has become a topic of conversation among Nebraska partisans, primarily because of the team’s defensive struggles and several negative comments made by the coach, including a verbal sparring match with former Huskers great Tommie Frazier, after he ripped the Nebraska coaching following a 41-21 loss to UCLA.
“I wouldn’t say he’s on the hot seat,” Abdullah said. “But we play for each other more than anything — and we consider Coach part of this team.”
The Gophers have their own final-stretch challenges, starting with Abdullah and Nebraska at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.
“He’ll be as fast of a tailback as we’ll play against,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “The rest of them, we’ve been able to catch and they really haven’t gotten behind us, and you’re talking about two people [Martinez and Abdullah] who can get behind you if they find a crease.”
Part of the Gophers’ concern is Abdullah’s assorted talents. While considered strongest running inside, Abdullah has bruised opponents along the sidelines as well. He even has caught 14 passes for 137 yards this season.
“I’m always trying to be diverse on the field, whether it’s catching a ball in the backfield, catching it out of the slot as a receiver or running the ball as a running back,” Abdullah said. “You want to be able to hurt a defense in multiple ways and I take pride in being able to catch the ball and I’m always trying to be a better receiver when I’m out there so that me being on the fly is just like having a receiver out there.”
Abdullah’s success is no surprise to Pelini. He saw something special years ago when he recruited the Alabama native.
“There was no question when we watched him, we thought he could be effective and very good,” Pelini said. “He had great vision, he was tough, he could run inside, he could run outside. A guy for his size, he’s a physical guy, and we thought he could take the pounding that is required at this level. There was no question in our minds that he was a running back that we thought could be a difference-maker.”