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Driving for 6: Johnson a quiet threat in noisy Husker backfield; Jones ready for spring

February 19, 2019

The roads are only going to get worse this week, but let’s take a drive anyhow.

1. The Nebraska backfield’s been through something of a tumultuous offseason thus far.

Sophomore Maurice Washington is facing charges in California and will travel there at a to-be-determined date for an initial court appearance.

Junior college signee Dedrick Mills had his own legal issue — stemming from a failure to appear in court — and has some academic work still to complete before coming to Nebraska, though the Husker coaches felt comfortable enough with his situation to sign him in January.

Obviously, NU also has to replace Devine Ozigbo’s production on the field as the senior is off to try to make an NFL roster.

Perhaps by the time September rolls around, Washington and Mills will be providing the dynamic 1-2 punch many expected, but don’t forget about a guy who’s been something of a background character so far.

That’s incoming freshman Rahmir Johnson. He’s not on campus yet — he’ll arrive in late May or early June — but he’s spending the interim burning up tracks in New Jersey.

For instance, last week, the Bergen Catholic standout ran a Bergen County indoor record 21.68 seconds in the 200 meters.

@rahmir_johnson DEMOLISHES the county record with a 21.68 in the 200m! @AdrianTaffe in second not far behind with a 22.73! #LeadOn#MenAtWorkpic.twitter.com/uCAvtienG0 — BCHS XC |Track&Field (@bcfinishline) February 14, 2019

He’s the school’s record-holder in the 100, 200 and was part of the school’s fastest 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400 relay teams.

Bottom line: He’s fast.

“One, he’s at a great high school that’s heavily recruited on the East Coast, which, everybody goes to the East Coast to recruit,” running backs coach Ryan Held told the Journal Star when Johnson signed with the Huskers. “He stuck with us. He’s very talented.”

Johnson was one of the earliest commits of the 2019 class, he plays for a powerhouse school and he put up a big senior season (1,334 yards, 11 touchdowns). And yet, he seems to fly a bit under the radar.

“For us, he really fits what we’re going for,” Held said. “He’s got a frame that he can put some good weight on still. He didn’t go on any other visits; he stuck with us. He’s loyal to us and we’re loyal to him.”

After he’s done setting track records this spring, the attention will turn to the backfield in Lincoln. How much ground can he cover once he’s here?

2. It’s hard to imagine there’s a player on Nebraska’s roster more excited for spring ball to begin than redshirt freshman safety Cam’ron Jones.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Mansfield, Texas, native was one of the most highly thought-of prospects in NU’s 2018 class, but instead of contributing right away, he had shoulder surgery and missed the entire season.

“I haven’t padded up and played nor (practiced) for over a whole year.. spring ball sound to good,” he tweeted on Sunday.

I haven’t padded up and played nor practice for over a whole year.. spring ball sound to good 😍— Cam Jones (@camgonework15) February 17, 2019

Tough to blame him.

It will also be a big learning curve for Jones and the other members of the “black sweatshirt posse,” as head coach Scott Frost dubbed the freshman group struck by injuries last fall. That group also included defensive linemen Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers for the entire season and defensive back C.J. Smith, center Cameron Jurgens and all-purpose back Miles Jones for big chunks of it.

“First years are hard,” Frost said earlier this month. “It’s different for someone like Adrian (Martinez) or someone who comes in and plays. That’s rare. For guys that redshirt, you’re used to being a high school superstar, junior high superstar, Pop Warner superstar, and you come to a place and you don’t even get to play the game. You’re just practicing. It can be hard on some kids.”

Especially when you’re hurt. And especially when it’s a full year.

The wait is almost over for Cam’ron Jones.

3. The search for Mike Dawson’s replacement as NU’s defensive line coach has been a quiet one so far, but movement should come soon.

Remember, spring ball starts two weeks from Monday. That makes this week or early next a reasonable target for finalizing a hire and getting him to Lincoln.

If you’re dreaming up a list of candidates, how close to the top is Jerry Montgomery? The 39-year-old Green Bay Packers defensive line coach, retained by new head coach Matt LaFleur this offseason, played multiple years with Erik Chinander at Iowa and coached on the same Northern Iowa staff as Chinander, Frost and Mario Verduzco.

That’s a tough ask to leave an NFL program, of course — Dawson left for a similar posting with the New York Giants, and perhaps Montgomery’s contract makes any conversation a non-starter — but the connections run deep, at least. Just food for thought.

One other note: Dawson’s $475,000 salary, according to Football Scoop, was among the top 10 for defensive line coaches nationally. The Huskers have the financial resources to hire a veteran. Or they could go up-and-comer. Only time will tell.

4. Among the position battles that will be wide open between now and Aug. 31: center.

“We’re going to have an open competition,” Frost said. “Obviously (redshirt freshman) Will Farniok is coming back. (Sophomore walk-on) Hunter Miller has a chance. I think there’s some guys playing guard that we’re going to have snap the ball some to give us some options with those guys.

“Obviously Cam Jurgens moving there is going to be a piece of that, too.”

The Huskers must replace starting center Tanner Farmer and left guard Jerald Foster. They return right guard Boe Wilson and tackles Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok.

They’ll still add juco walk-on Joshua Wegener from Iowa Western this summer and could elect to explore the transfer market, too.

This could end up being a five-man or even six-man race and spring ball will be a critical period.

5. A little bit behind on this, but college football analyst Bill Connelly put out his 2019 S&P+ projections last week, and they always make for interesting reading.

Nebraska checks in at No. 45 out of 130 nationally in Connelly’s preseason rankings, which are based on returning production, recruiting impact and recent history. Interestingly, NU finished 2018 at No. 49 – Connelly’s model thought the Huskers were significantly better than their 4-8 record.

For 2019 preseason, Connelly’s model pegs Nebraska’s offense at No. 35 and its defense No. 64 and “suggests we pump the brakes” on NU.

Good luck with that. But Bill is always a worthwhile read.

6. Spring ball is right around the corner. Now, if only we can find a little spring weather, too.