Even if the weather had cooperated Saturday, Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead wouldn't have received much work in the spring game.
Burkhead has nothing to prove to his coaches, to his teammates or to the tens of thousands of Huskers fans who would have been in attendance. If there's one player who doesn't cause angst in that football-crazed state, it's Burkhead, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches and media) last fall after rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. While Bennett and I could do a poll on Nebraska's most popular player, I think we'd be wasting our time and yours. The guy they call "Superman" would win in a landslide.
But Burkhead's name doesn't resonate nationally like it does in Nebraska or within the Big Ten footprint. It's puzzling for those who watch him play, like the Omaha World-Herald's Lee Barfknecht, who recently wrote about Burkhead's uphill climb for Heisman Trophy consideration. It's a topic I've been asked about several times on Nebraska radio stations in recent months, and one that will continue to be explored as the 2012 season approaches.
Barfknecht makes a convincing case for Burkhead, calling him "the most valuable offensive weapon at Nebraska since quarterback Eric Crouch did it all in 2001 while winning the Heisman." Anyone who watches Burkhead can appreciate his approach to the game, his consistent performances and his value to Nebraska's offense. He's also a star off of the field.
He has shown versatility, durability and reliability throughout his career.
But that's part of the problem, at least when it comes to national perception.
From Barfknecht's story:
His Heisman problem is that in today's Look-At-Me Generation, guys like him don't get many looks. ... Others will argue that Burkhead won't have the sexy plays -- those signature "Heisman moments" -- of other candidates. His long runs at Nebraska have been 34 yards as a freshman, 33 yards as a sophomore and 52 yards as a junior. As for 100-yard games, he has 10 in his career with a best of 170 yards last season at Wyoming.
This is an unfortunate truth about the Heisman race. It's a national award in every sense, and national name recognition is invaluable. Being an elite player is only part of the way to gain serious consideration.
It helps to be on a nationally elite team, as Crouch was in 2001. It helps to have a signature moment replayed over and over on "ESPN College GameDay" or "SportsCenter." It helps to be known as exciting or explosive. It helps to have a huge performance in a game that resonates around the country. It helps to have a unique back story, or a catchy nickname.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson reflects many of these qualities. He hasn't been as consistent as Burkhead, or Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011. But Robinson's name resonates nationally. President Obama knows who he is. Every Heisman voter knows who he is and what he can do. They've probably seen his past two performances against Notre Dame. They've definitely seen his electrifying runs. They know about the shoelaces. The 15 interceptions he threw last year? Meh.
It's why Robinson still could be the Big Ten's top Heisman candidate entering the 2012 season. If not, he's 1A next to Ball. Robinson undoubtedly will be at or near the top of the Heisman watch lists if he delivers a big performance in Michigan's opener against Alabama.
Ball should have less trouble getting noticed this season than he did in 2011. Despite impressive performances from the get-go, he was overshadowed by teammate Russell Wilson. Only when Ball began closing in on Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record did he start gaining traction for the Heisman. While he finished a distant fourth in the Heisman voting, he became a name voters know entering this year's race.
Is there hope for Burkhead? Sure. He needs to announce himself early in the season. Nebraska's nonconference schedule lacks national appeal, but Burkhead can make a statement with a big performance in the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin. He'll need to outshine Ball that night in Lincoln. It wouldn't hurt to follow it up the next week with a big game at Ohio State.
He also would benefit if Nebraska gives the nation reason to pay attention. This isn't the Nebraska program Crouch starred for, and while the Huksers are talking big, they're not regarded as a national player. That might have to change for Burkhead to get the recognition he deserves.
"He's one of the top running backs in the country," quarterback Taylor Martinez said.
No one will dispute that in Big Ten country.
But to take flight nationally in the 2012 Heisman race, Superman needs a boost.