Relentless attitude fuels Ameer Abdullah

LINCOLN, Neb. – Go ahead, try to impress Ameer Abdullah.

Just don’t bring up his statistics. Nebraska’s junior I-back leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally in rushing with 1,108 yards. He’s the ninth player in school history to record two 1,000-yard seasons, joining a class of legendary runners, and the first at Nebraska to reach 1,000 yards in eight games since Ahman Green in 1997.

Abdullah said he owes the yardage to his blockers.

“I feel like I’m set up to do it,” he said. “It’s not something I’m accomplishing.”

You won’t impress him with his determination or strength, not even with the fourth-and-15 conversion Saturday during Nebraska’s frantic drive that ended with a 49-yard Hail Mary completion to beat Northwestern. Abdullah made the ending a possibility four plays earlier by shaking two defenders and dragging a third past the marker after he snagged a low pass from Ron Kellogg III 5 yards short of the first down.

That’s expected, especially with the whole game at stake, said Abdullah, who visits Michigan on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) with the Huskers.

His effort, according to Nebraska left tackle Jeremiah Sirles, who watched the key play last week unfold from behind, was “unreal.”

“But that’s him every day,” Sirles said. “It’s what makes him great.”

Abdullah learned humility and resolve from his family. The youngest of nine siblings, he strived to match the accomplishments of others in his home. He fought to make his parents proud.

He faced long odds as an under-appreciated prospect out of Homewood, Ala., overshadowed by dozens of backs in the South. And he enrolled with two others at his position, both more heavily recruited, at Nebraska. Only Adbullah remains. Perseverance is another family characteristic.

Sister Madinah starred in volleyball at Alabama A&M. Brother Muhammad played football at Alabama State. Ameer said he’s not the best athlete in his family, rattling off the accomplishments of his siblings.

But you’ve rushed for 1,000 yards at Nebraska. Twice.

“That’s not enough, man,” he said. “I know that may sound like me being humble, but I wish I could do some of the things they could do.”

Madinah attends pharmacy school in Alabama. Muhammad works as a lawyer. Their father, Kareem, spent his career in private business. Mother Aisha was a longtime educator. The family bred success.

“There’s no pressure,” Kareem Abdullah said, “but we expect that from him.”

Lots of backs credit their offensive line. Abdullah means it, Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. He is the consummate teammate.

He volunteered to play cornerback as a freshman in 2011. He begged coaches to let him cover an onside kick last year against UCLA and still pesters them regularly for time on special teams. Despite the unwritten rule that a back in his position in a conference like the Big Ten needs to save his body, they often relent.

“He has made up his mind that there’s no job,” Brown said, “no role that’s beneath him. I’ve had to tell him, ‘Ameer, get off the practice field.’ At times, he’ll just wear you down. His trajectory is just so high. He doesn’t have a lazy streak in him.”

Nebraska coaches create post-practice drills specifically designed not to tax Abdullah’s legs, because they know he won’t leave the field until he’s among the last to finish working.

The Huskers’ best offensive player also ranks as their hardest worker. No one denies either count.

“He steps up,” sixth-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “He wants to do everything he can to win a football game. He’s a warrior. I’ll tell you he really is. I just love the kid.

“I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the country, not only as a player but as a person, as a leader and what he brings. To me, he embodies what this program and this culture is all about.”

Spend five minutes with Abdullah, and you’ll see he’s just different.

Abdullah apologized on Monday to reporters for not getting a haircut before he spoke at the team’s weekly press conference. Asked if he’d consider a look at the NFL after this season, Abdullah nearly cut off the question.

“No,” he said.

His decisiveness illustrates growth over the past three years. Out of high school, Abdullah said he questioned his ability to play running back in college. Most recruiters liked him as a defensive back, including those at his favorite program, Auburn. Abdullah remains a fan of the Tigers.

A conversation with his father convinced Abdullah to choose the position he loved.

Heralded backs filled the Southeast region in Abdullah's Class of 2011. ESPN.com ranked Abdullah as the No. 128 prospect nationally at the position.

His 2,395 career yards exceeds the totals gained at the FBS level by every top-30 back in the class, including the likes of former Georgia star Isaiah Crowell, Texas’ Malcolm Brown, Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill of LSU, Marlin Lane of Tennessee, Auburn’s Tre Mason and Devonta Freeman of Florida State.

Now, that gets Abdullah’s attention. He looks almost impressed.

“Those schools,” he said, “they all knew what they wanted. And that’s great. I couldn’t be happier at Nebraska.”

Backs Aaron Green and Braylon Heard arrived at Nebraska in 2011 with more recognition than Abdullah. Green transferred to TCU and Heard to Kentucky.

“Ameer set himself apart just through his relentless work ethic,” Brown said.

It never changes. Every day, every play requires something extra from Abdullah.