Rex Burkhead: A throwback to the future

It was tricky to characterize Rex Burkhead in 2010, as he did a little bit of everything for Nebraska: I-back, Wildcat quarterback, slot receiver.

His role is more defined this season. He's clearly the Huskers' lead back behind signal-caller Taylor Martinez.

But one label continues to follow Burkhead more than others. Even those who have never faced him in a game use it to describe the Huskers junior.

"Burkhead," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said, "is a throwback."

Does Burkhead agree?

"I hear it a lot from a bunch of media people, so in a way, I guess," he said. "I still have a few flashes of making moves, but I'm not really sure the exact definition. I don't know if it's hard-nosed, running downhill or whatever. I guess it's a compliment. I'll take it."

It's definitely a compliment and a testament to Burkhead's approach. His versatility stands out in a game that has become increasingly specialized. His consistency has been key for a Huskers offense that has endured ups and downs the past few seasons.

Playing behind Roy Helu Jr. last year, Burkhead rushed for 951 yards and seven touchdowns on 5.5 yards a carry and added 148 receiving yards. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior already has matched his 2010 touchdowns total in the first four games (7), and his yards-per-carry average is up to 6.7. While Nebraska has had some issues with its power run game, Burkhead has lost only three yards on 63 attempts.

"We're really happy with Rex," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's ran hard, he's done a lot of good things. He's a heck of a football player. We always felt he was a huge part of our offense, and it's continued this year."

Burkhead saw his workload increase toward the end of last season, in part because Martinez was banged up. After averaging just 9.1 carries through Nebraska's first eight games, Burkhead averaged 16.5 carries in the final six contests, recording no fewer than 12 carries in a game.

He has had 15 or more carries in three of Nebraska's first four games this fall, a trend that will continue as the competition level increases.

"Recovery is the No. 1 thing you have to focus on as the season goes on," he said. "Get in the cold tub after practice, make sure you're 100 percent from game to game, fully recovered so you can go out and play your best."

Although Nebraska boasts good depth at running back, Burkhead and Martinez have spurred the rushing attack. They boast virtually identical stat lines entering Saturday night's game at No. 7 Wisconsin.

Burkhead: 63 carries, 420 yards, 7 TDs, 6.7 ypc, 105 ypg (25th nationally)

Martinez: 63 carries, 421 yards, 7 TDs, 6.7 ypc, 105.2 ypg (24th nationally)

In 2010, the pair combined to rush for 1,916 yards. They ranked third among FBS returning QB-RB rushing tandems entering this season, behind Michigan's Denard Robinson and Vincent Smith and Oregon's Darron Thomas and LaMichael James.

Burkhead and Martinez have combined to eclipse 200 rush yards in each of Nebraska's first four contests.

"Whatever the play may be, the option or the zone read, we have that chemistry and timing down over the course of the past two seasons," Burkhead said. "We kind of know what to expect from each other."

Pelini knows what to expect from Burkhead every time Nebraska takes the field: versatility, consistency and hard work.

Is he a throwback?

"What Bret's talking about is he's tough, he's hard-nosed, he's a guy that brings his lunch pail every day and plays really hard," Pelini said. "He's a great guy to have on your football team in so many different ways."