For many teams, losing a player like Rex Burkhead would be devastating.
The Nebraska senior running back was the heart and soul of the team's offense and one of the top players in the Big Ten. In the preseason, we ranked him as the No. 2 player in the league. Yet his season barely got going before he sprained the MCL in his left knee in the opener. That was an unlucky break, but luckily, the Cornhuskers had players ready to fill his role.
"When Rex went down, guys didn't panic," sophomore Ameer Abdullah told ESPN.com. "We considered what we had in our room and the character of the kind of people we had. We knew we just had to pick up the slack."
Even with Burkhead's season full of starts and stops, there hasn't been much slack in the Nebraska running game. The Huskers lead the Big Ten in rushing yards at 279 per game. Last year, with a healthy Burkhead for 13 games, they averaged 217.2.
Abdullah has been a big reason why. Known mostly for his kickoff returns and bursts of speed last year, he has become the go-to running back in Burkhead's absence. Abdullah has three 100-yard games this season, including a 19-carry, 101-yard performance in last week's win at Northwestern. He has run for 615 yards on the season, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt.
"With experience, you get more confident, and I feel like my confidence is much higher than it was last year," Abdullah said. "Rex, he's a real student of the game. So just watching him, he's a great model to follow. Being under his wing has really helped me."
Burkhead has tried to get his season restarted a couple of times. He ran for 119 yards at Ohio State before re-aggravating the knee injury. Last week at Northwestern, he left the game after just four carries, unable to run the way he wanted. He's being listed as day-to-day for this week's game against Michigan.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says Burkhead is a "strong-minded kid" who doesn't let too much bother him. At the same time, Pelini says Burkhead is "frustrated and obviously disappointed he's been having to deal with this."
The wise course for the Huskers may simply be to rest Burkhead until he's fully healed. But they're fighting for their Big Ten lives right now and need all the help they can get against a Michigan defense that is allowing only 91 rushing yards in league play. '
Nebraska is fortunate to have one of the deepest backfields in the conference, with Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross carrying the load behind Burkhead. Abdullah had a problem with fumbles earlier in the season but appears to have improved his ball-security skills.
"Things like that happen," he said. "I don't try to put too much emphasis on it, because when you are thinking about it, that's when you play timid and that's when you can't play at your best."
At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Abdullah isn't quite the battering ram that the 210-pound Burkhead is. But he says the offensive playcalling isn't much different when he's in the game, and he has worked on becoming a more powerful runner.
"A lot of people just see me as a speed back," he said. "But if you look at the game film, there are a lot things I do well in between the tackles. There are also a lot of things I can get better at between the tackles. But sometimes I do think that's an underrated factor of my game."
Nebraska would love to get Burkhead back in the lineup. But thanks in large part to Abdullah, the Huskers are doing just fine without him.