November 9, 2008

Watson standing behind running back rotation

For the past two weeks at least, sophomore running back Roy Helu has looked like an All-American.

With back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, Helu has been the clear leader of Nebraska's three-back rotation. Following his career-high 157 rushing yards against Oklahoma two weeks ago, the Danville, Calif., native helped lead the Huskers to a 45-35 win over Kansas with 16 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

During that two-span, he's also hauled in 10 receptions for 80 yards, giving him 352 yards of total offense and three touchdowns during the past two weeks.

With those kind of numbers, the general assumption would lead one to believe Helu has done enough to earn the starting running back job over senior Marlon Lucky, or at least receive the bulk of the touches for the rest of the season.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson doesn't quite see it that way.

Just as he's done the entire season, Watson says he's sticking with the three-way rotation of Lucky, Helu and sophomore Quentin Castille to handle the Huskers' running game. Despite Helu's breakout performances the past two weeks, Watson is standing firm in his belief that NU is better off sharing the load in the backfield.

"(Helu is) playing well," Watson said. "He's always played well, but it's hard taking touches away from all of them, because who's going to get in a rhythm? He's had a nice two-game rhythm, and he's playing really well right now. He didn't back off of where he was last week, and we went with him because we could see right away that he was back in that rhythm, so we rode him again today. That's the way we'll play the guys. It's been Marlon on occasions, it's been Q on occasions."

Watson has used the running back-by-committee method essentially his entire career, an it helped him guide Colorado to four Big 12 North titles, including a conference championship in 2001 as the Buffalo's offensive coordinator from 2000-05.

Watson said that in today's game, essentially every team uses multiple running backs, and that the days of one back getting 30 carries per game are long gone.

"The great thing about those kids in there is that everybody wants to name a starter, but they all know they have to have other guys," he said. "I don't know who in the NFL or who in college football is playing with one guy anymore. Nobody is. You've got to have some horses. I think (NU running backs coach Tim Beck) has done a great job of going with the hot hand. He's done a real nice job of managing that, because that's not an easy task."

Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has also been a firm supporter of the Huskers' three-back rotation, saying it allows the offense to show opponents a variety of looks in the backfield and create potential mismatches.

"It's a team effort," Pelini said. "It's not about any one guy. When guys are called upon they need to step up, and that's what is going to happen."

Helu, Lucky and Castille have all echoed the same sentiments about the system since the beginning of fall camp, saying all they're concerned with is doing whatever they can to help the team win.

After Saturday's win, Helu held firm with that theme when asked if he felt he should be playing earlier in games.

"Oh, you're asking if I want to be the starter, huh?" he said. "No, it's the coaches call and I'm fine with whatever they (do.)"

As questions about his thinking behind Nebraska's running back rotation began to mount during his postgame interview, Watson became visibly irritated, as he found himself repeating the same answers in defending his philosophy.

While many might question his decision to not make Helu the clear cut starter, it's obvious nothing is going to change in that regard any time soon.

"They understand what we're trying to do to win games," he said. "Bottom line. There's no more of a story to it. That's it. Period."

***Senior linebacker and former Husker running back Cody Glenn said he hasn't been surprised at all by Helu's performance the past two weeks.

"I've been telling people since the spring, since fall camp, watch out for Roy Helu," he said. "That kid is good. I saw it all throughout camp. Just the way he prepares and his focus and his mindset and his skill set, it's unbelievable what he can do. Right now is just a taste of what he can do. It's going to get better and better throughout the season and throughout his career."

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