- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

OMAHA, NEB. (AP) - The running game didn’t draw nearly as much attention as the quarterbacks and receivers in the Red-White scrimmage, but Nebraska coach Bo Pelini predicts it will be a strength come fall.

Roy Helu Jr., the top returning I-back, sat out Saturday’s spring game with a hamstring injury.

Take away his 17-yard burst in the second quarter, and No. 2 back Quentin Castille totaled just 16 yards on six carries.

Nonetheless, Pelini said Tuesday he had reason to be encouraged after watching his young backs.

Collins Okafor, a redshirt freshman out of Omaha Westside, got all 11 of his carries in the second half and finished with 79 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown where he made a nice move to the outside after breaking through the line.

Lester Ward, a redshirt freshman from Brenham, Texas, ran 10 times for 53 yards.

Then there was sophomore Austin Jones of Denver, who joined the team in 2007 after going through a walk-on tryout. Jones started for the White team and ran 12 times for 38 yards.

“I like our running backs, I like our offensive line,” Pelini said. “We need a couple guys to come through. We’re not as deep as I’d like right now, but the kids are coming, and we became deeper as the spring went on. I like what we have going, and I think we’ll have a formidable running game.”

Helu, who replaced an injured Marlon Lucky in the starting lineup late in the season, averaged 6.4 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns. Castille averaged 4.4 yards a carry and scored six TDs, and he ran for a career-high 125 yards against Clemson in the Gator Bowl. But he also has fumbled eight times the past two seasons.

Pelini expects incoming freshman Rex Burkhead of Plano, Texas, and Dontrayevous Robinson of Euless, Texas, to push for early playing time.

“I love our talent at the running-back spot,” Pelini said. “We have to make sure we develop the depth and figure out all the pieces to the offensive line puzzle to make sure we can open up some holes for those guys.”

Pelini said offensive linemen Ricky Henry, D.J. Jones and Marcel Jones had productive springs and that Kansas State transfer Derek Meyer showed the ability to play more than one position. Center Mike Caputo also exceeded expectations, giving the coaching staff the freedom to move 2008 starting center Jacob Hickman to right guard.

The defensive line’s development also was better than expected, Pelini said. He said the line is deeper than spring a year ago.

Barry Turner has returned from a broken leg, and he’ll play opposite Pierre Allen at defensive end. Nose tackle Ndamukong Suh and tackle Jared Crick anchor the middle.

Pelini said Baker Steinkuhler “really got better” over the spring at tackle, and David Harvey adjusted well to moving back to end after playing on the interior last fall.

The coach reiterated his confidence in the quarterback situation. Zac Lee will go into the fall as the presumed starter, with Latravis Washington, Kody Spano and Cody Green in the mix behind him.

Pelini said it wouldn’t be necessary to add another quarterback who would be eligible immediately.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has said he has spoken with Greg Paulus, the former Duke basketball player who would have one season of football eligibility if given a waiver by the NCAA.

Former Miami quarterback Robert Marve also is shopping for a new school, but he wouldn’t be eligible until 2010 if he were to go to a Football Bowl Championship (Division I) program. Marve attended the spring game.

“You’re always looking to upgrade your team, but it has to be the right situation and right guy,” Pelini said. “You never say no, never. But I like the way our young guys developed.”

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