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Nebraska's 'unbelievable' running back competition is still too close to call

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Amie Just has the latest episode of Four Downs on Thursday at Memorial Stadium.

Ever since Bryan Applewhite wrote a paper on thoroughbreds in third grade, he’s been a fan of horseracing. Maybe that’s why he sees a derby of sorts playing out among Nebraska running backs in fall camp.

Picking a favorite? Still too early to call, the Husker position coach said Thursday.

“It’s like you get the last seven Triple Crown winners in a horse race,” Applewhite said. “Let’s start them all in the same race.”

The coach invoked a second analogy moments later, likening the running back battle to a ‘90s slam-dunk contest where every contender outdoes the previous one. Maybe Anthony Grant makes a linebacker miss, stiff-arms a safety and scores, he said. Then Rahmir Johnson does the same thing, except faster. Then freshman Ajay Allen picks up a blitz and Jaquez Yant makes multiple defenders miss and runs over another. All can turn bad plays into productive ones.

Applewhite simultaneously wants a lead back — “RB1,” he said — and for the decision in naming one to be difficult.

“Once an RB1 emerges himself, I think Nebraska is going to have a real good running back,” Applewhite said.

There are six scholarship candidates within the competition Applewhite called “unbelievable.” Three are new to the roster in former New Mexico Military Institute standout Anthony Grant — the offensive player of the year at the NJCAA Division I level last season — and freshmen Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson. Rahmir Johnson, Jaquez Yant and Gabe Ervin are the others, with Ervin now fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered last season.

All will be asked to handle all situations, Applewhite said, though there may be a few plays designed around specific players on specific downs and spots on the field. Depth is always important at an injury-prone position. Whoever shows the most consistency and physicality will get the first crack in Ireland against Northwestern.

“Pretty much at every university I’ve been at I’ve played true freshmen,” Applewhite said. “It’s just part of developing them and making them understand that you believed in them and they can believe in themselves. It doesn’t matter to me — freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, fifth-year senior, COVID senior. Doesn’t matter.”

Johnson, in his fourth season at NU, has become a leader of the group. A special teams constant, the New Jersey native is also the one tasked with holding other running backs accountable for being on time for their various to-dos in the facility and in meetings. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Yant, meanwhile, continues to look the part after slimming down earlier in the offseason.

Nebraska will scrimmage this weekend, marking another key evaluation piece with the season opener — and metaphorical finish line — coming up fast.

“When they don’t know what that next play is going to be,” Applewhite said, “can they handle and process everything fast enough?”​

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