First Year Springboard

Ervin Jr. joins elite company as a true freshman running back

Story by Shane G. Gilster

Nebraska has had a tradition of producing top running backs. Most had to wait their turn until they were upperclassmen to finally start and reach their potential. But there have been a handful of players who played as true freshmen and later developed into some of the best runners in school history. That trend bodes well for Gabe Ervin Jr., who became the first true freshman running back to start a season opener. In fact, Ervin Jr. is just the seventh freshman position player in the modern era to earn a starting job in a Husker season opener.

He joins the following:
2019 Wan’Dale Robinson, WR
2018 Adrian Martinez, QB
2015 Dedrick Young, LB
2011 Tyler Moore, OT
2004 Terrence Nunn, WR
1996 Ralph Brown, CB

Ervin Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Oklahoma, credits his ability to start as a true freshman to several factors.

“Coming from Buford High School, I had to fight for playing time from Day 1 there. So, when I got to Nebraska, it was like the same thing. Buford had that standard and Nebraska has the same one,” Ervin Jr. said. “Graduating early was also key and was an advantage for me to get the playbook down. When I first got here, I thought my mind was different, I had that championship mindset to get the job done. I felt I could get on the field right away. I studied the plays day in and day out. My roommate is Heinrich Haarberg, so we worked on stuff together and learned the plays. I paid attention to detail, practiced hard and everything just fell into place.”

Once Ervin Jr. got the mental side down, which is always the toughest for freshmen, his physical abilities naturally shined in practices.

“Competition is very intense during practice and we have to approach it like a game,” he said. “It builds our skill level. I feel like I can do a lot of things well, run the ball, catch the ball; I’m very versatile. But pass blocking was a struggle for me.

“I worked on it and eventually perfected it. Pass blocking is the key for an offense. I take pride in it because without it, the quarterback is going to get sacked. You can’t think of playing against guys that are 300 pounds, you just have to have that dog mentality and get the job done. As a runner, you have to have confidence knowing you can make those holes and break them. You have to envision yourself making those big plays and then it will eventually happen in real life.”

For the first four games, Ervin Jr. continued to start at running back for Nebraska and became more comfortable at his position.

“My first start was amazing but I didn’t let it get into my head,” he said. “Being the first true freshman to start at running back means a lot but I try not to think of it because we have a whole season with a lot of games to play. I leave that outside noise to itself and just concentrate on what I do on the field. I just thank God every day for the ability and potential that I have.”

Starting offensive guard Matt Sichterman said Ervin Jr. was “just one of those dudes who came in and just got up to speed really quickly. He learned the offense, got into the weight room and worked hard right away. He is just one of those special guys who can come in here and start and play early. He does not act like a true freshman. He carries himself in a confident way, which I like about him.”

Time will tell whether Ervin Jr. will develop into an all-conference type, but if he can develop along with his offensive line, he then can use his freshman season as a springboard to future greatness.

Here’s a look at some other Husker running backs who played as true freshmen who later went on to become all-time greats at NU.

DEREK BROWN (1990)

Derek Brown provided a spark for the Husker offense as a freshman in 1990
Derek Brown provided a spark for the Husker offense as a freshman in 1990

With Nebraska’s top two backs, Leodis Flowers (knee) and Scott Baldwin (turf toe), out with injuries against Minnesota in 1990, Brown became the first freshman to start at I-back for the Huskers in 16 years since Monte Anthony in 1974.

Brown scored a touchdown on his first collegiate carry and finished with 120 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns. It was the second-best freshman rushing performance in Husker history. He also became the first NU I-back to catch a touchdown pass in three seasons when he hauled in a 21-yarder in the third quarter.

Brown wasn’t your traditional true freshman. He sat out during the 1989 season because he didn’t meet freshman eligibility requirements under the NCAA’s Proposition 48. But this developed patience in Brown as he waited for his opportunity. A talk to running back coach Frank Solich helped him put things in perspective before the season started. “He must have felt I looked discouraged, or else someone told him I was,” Brown said. “He said I have to be patient, that a freshman can’t just jump ahead of someone. I don’t expect to play that much this season. I know it’s still a long time until I get a chance. But I’m going to be waiting, I’m not going anywhere.”

Brown finished that 1990 year as NU’s fourth-leading rusher with 375 yards rushing on 59 carries (6.4 avg.) and five scores. He also was the fifth-leading receiver on the team.

LAWRENCE PHILLIPS (1993)

Lawrence Phillips rushed for more than 500 yards as a freshman in 1993.
Lawrence Phillips rushed for more than 500 yards as a freshman in 1993.

Phillips was a freshman at NU during a 1993 season in which the Huskers would play for the national championship. He played in every game except the opener. After rushing for 80 yards on 14 carries with a touchdown against Texas Tech in Game 2, Phillips came off the bench the following week, replacing starter Damon Benning, to run for 137 yards on 28 carries and a score against UCLA.

“I thought I’d be lucky to get 13 or 15 carries,” Phillips said. “It was really the linemen. They were getting me five yards every time I carried.”

Phillips became the Huskers’ third-leading rusher that year with 508 yards on 92 carries and five touchdowns. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 50.8 per game. He ranked 10th in the Big Eight in rushing per game and had the third-best all-time rushing season for a Husker freshman.

Phillips developed into a big-game back. In the 1994 Orange Bowl vs. Florida State, he came off the bench when starter Calvin Jones left the game with a shoulder injury and had 13 carries for 64 yards and a touchdown. All but one of Phillips’ 13 carries came in the fourth quarter as the Huskers nearly beat the Seminoles for the national championship.

AHMAN GREEN (1995)

Ahman Green ran for more than 1,000 yards during his freshman campaign in
Ahman Green ran for more than 1,000 yards during his freshman campaign in

Green holds the freshman rushing record with 1,086 yards in 1995. That year he was named the Offensive Freshman-of-theYear, Offensive Newcomer-of-the-Year and a First-Team All-Big Eight selection.

Playing on perhaps the greatest college football team in history, Green took over the starting duties for the last six games of the regular season. His first start was against Missouri. He ran for 90 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries against the Tigers.

“I came out nervous because it was my first start as a Husker, and I had jitters in my tummy,” Green said. “After awhile I got them out and I began to roll.”

NU running backs coach Frank Solich said when Green first started, it was a little unsettling to him, but he responded well to Ahman Green ran for more than 1,000 yards during his freshman campaign in it.

“As he went along, he came at a very fast pace,” Solich said. “Right now I think he can play football against anybody and do a great job. You don’t have a lot of freshmen around the country who you can say that about.”

Green would add 109 yards on a season-high 22 carries against Kansas State, before putting up 97 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries against Colorado. He matched his season high with 176 yards and a season-best three touchdowns on just 12 carries against Iowa State. He did not start in Nebraska’s 1996 Fiesta Bowl against Florida, but he did rush nine times for 68 yards and one score against the Gators as the Huskers won the national title.

CORRELL BUCKHALTER (1997)

Correll Buckhalter scored two touchdowns in the game against Akron in 1997.
Correll Buckhalter scored two touchdowns in the game against Akron in 1997.

Like Phillips and Green, Buckhalter saw the field as a true freshman for a Nebraska team that was national championship material.

Buckhalter busted out in the first game of the 1997 season against Akron, rushing for 61 yards and two touchdowns, both coming in the second half.

“He ran great,” said starting I-back Ahman Green. “A lot of guys on the sideline said that Correll reminded them of me. He doesn’t go down on the first hit. He kept his legs going.”

Even NU head coach Tom Osborne was impressed with his freshman running back.

“I thought the freshmen probably overall did pretty well, especially Buckhalter,” he said. “I don’t know how fast he is. Nobody really knows how fast he is. He’s fast enough to play and he has good balance.”

Buckhalter finished the 1997 national championship season as the team’s fourth-leading rusher with 311 yards on 54 carries and six touchdowns.

REX BURKHEAD (2009)

Burkhead was one of six true freshmen to see action in 2009. He finished as NU’s second-leading rusher with 346 yards and three touchdowns, even though he played in just nine games, missing five due to a foot injury.

His top game was against Colorado in Boulder as he rushed 18 times for 100 yards and a touchdown. His score came in the fourth quarter, capping a drive that saw Burkhead rush nine times for 55 yards.

In the Holiday Bowl, Burkhead had 17 carries for 89 yards and scored a touchdown. Several of his carries came out of a Wildcat set with him taking a direct snap.

“It’s not about him. It’s about the team. He gets it,” said NU running backs coach Tim Beck. “A lot of very talented guys don’t see the big picture. He does. He’s a great young man. Players around him feed off his quiet confidence and work ethic. It’s instant credibility.” Head coach Bo Pelini agreed,

“Rex is a pretty special young man,” Pelini said. “You look at what he did as a high-school athlete. He’s done it for a long time when he did it in a competitive high-school area. He’s tough, hard-working and is a leader. He exemplifies everything I want to bring into this program.”

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