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Steven M. Sipple: In Frost’s uphill battle in Big Ten, ‘downhill’ running back could help greatly

February 7, 2019

If you’re fighting an uphill battle, it helps to have a “downhill” running back.

Dedrick Mills, all 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds of him, fits that description, according to Nebraska football coach Scott Frost, who’s fighting an uphill battle in the sense that his team was 4-8 last season. The Huskers also were 4-8 in 2017 under Mike Riley. Truth be told, most Big Ten teams not named Ohio State fight an uphill battle, such is the strength and physical nature of the conference.

Frost fights the good fight with a smile. He seemed pleased Wednesday as he put a bow on Nebraska’s 2019 recruiting class. But he also noted the Huskers remain short on numbers in terms of personnel at a few positions.

“There’s nothing about what we’re trying to do that can get fixed at the drop of a hat,” he said.

So, yeah, it helps to have a new running back in the program who can lower the boom on defenders. Mills is a power back. In that regard, he fills a void on Nebraska’s roster. He actually signed with the Huskers last month after starring in 2018 at Garden City (Kansas) Community College. He was the ACC freshman of the year at Georgia Tech in 2016 after rushing for more than 700 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“He gives us an older back — a strong, physical back,” Husker running backs coach Ryan Held said. “I watched him in person at the (junior college) national championship game. They have 10 guys in the box, and he just ran very, very hard. You can see he has the ability to go all the way, and he can get us that tough yard that you need in this league. We have to get better at the third-and-short and fourth-and-short stuff. I think he can really help us with that.”

Amen to that. Mills’ recruitment was vital because of the loss of powerful Devine Ozigbo, who rushed for 1,082 yards last season as a senior while averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Frost continues to tout Ozigbo as an NFL-level player. Bottom line, Nebraska has nobody in the stable that packs the sort of wallop Ozigbo did last season.

But Mills could be that guy.

“That’s tough to replace,” Frost said of Ozigbo’s production. “That being said, I think the group we have, led by Mo Washington and some other young guys, is going to make that position more talented than it has been. But we’re going to be really young. So we felt like we needed to add somebody who maybe had some experience.”

[ WATCH: NU coach Scott Frost talks recruiting, spring football ]

Frost described Mills as “an every-down back” and likes his durability. If the speedster Washington makes the sort of progress I expect, Nebraska could have quite an interesting 1-2 punch at running back. As a true freshman last season, Washington rushed 77 times for 455 yards (5.9 per carry) while catching 24 passes for 221 yards and another score.

“The room will be younger with some of the new guys we signed, with Rahmir (Johnson) and Ronnie (Thompkins), and Mo coming back,” Held said. “We’ll give Jaylin Bradley a look. Wyatt (Mazour) is coming back. But we needed an older guy with experience at the collegiate level, and we feel Dedrick will give us a boost there.”

Mills will arrive on campus in the summer, assuming he takes care of his remaining schoolwork at Garden City. Frost emphasizes the importance of recruiting players who are the right fit for his program. He said he’s enjoyed being around Mills and learning what he’s fought through to get to this point.

[ WATCH: Recap of NU football recruiting and spring football ]

“He’s got some work to do to get here, but we feel confident it’s going to get done,” Frost said.

In addition to the loss of Ozigbo, Nebraska must move forward without wideout Stanley Morgan, who had 70 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Frost shared some important news in that regard: Junior slot receiver JD Spielman (66 catches for 818 yards and eight TDs last year) appears recovered from a high-ankle sprain. In fact, Spielman was close to being ready for the season-ending Iowa game, the coach said.

“Hopefully some of these young kids we brought in can help fill the gap, and there are some guys already on campus I’m expecting to make huge jumps this year,” Frost said. “A lot of times in the first year in a system, some kids don’t quite flourish and they make a huge jump in year two. But there are a bunch of guys already on the roster — from (Jaevon) McQuitty to Woody (Jaron Woodyard) to Mike (Williams) to Andre Hunt, even some walk-ons like Wyatt (Liewer) and (Bennett) Folkers. There are a bunch of guys who I think could take a step forward and help us.”

He’s looking for guys to fill spots in all those three- and four-receiver sets.

“I feel a lot better about it than I did a year ago,” Frost said.

Even so, his uphill battle continues. A running back who can bruise defenders between the tackles could help matters.

Mills looks capable of filling the bill. Hold on to your hats.

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