Football: Nebraska’s Burkhead a force in Big Ten

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Football: Nebraska’s Burkhead a force in Big Ten

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

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In the Big Ten, Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball garner the most hype as stars in the backfield. Even Northwestern running back Venric Mark has turned heads with his explosive play in the 2012 season.

Often lost in the shuffle is Nebraska’s senior running back Rex Burkhead. The Plano, Texas, native has been a consistent performer during his two seasons in the Big Ten, as well as one of its best.

Burkhead was ready from the get-go as a true freshman in 2009, when he played in nine games and carried the ball 81 times, gaining a respectable 360 yards on the ground for the season. The next year, Burkhead’s workload increased to 172 carries for 990 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Last season, Burkhead had his coming out party when coach Bo Pelini handed him the starting job at running back. The then-junior exploded on to the scene, becoming one of the best playmakers in the conference. The Plano Senior High School graduate tore up opposing run defenses for 1,406 yards on the ground, running the ball 284 times and racking up 15 touchdowns.

At Big Ten Media Days in July, Burkhead was asked about his success and credited his parents for guiding him through his football career.

“My parents did a tremendous job,” he said. “They made sure I stayed humble and didn’t get too high on myself. My coaches and teammates do the same thing, and we all hold each other accountable.”

Burkhead grew up watching a lot of Texas football, and with all the exposure to the Big 12 through Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor, Nebraska would also catch the running back’s eye. In fact, Burkhead admitted to always wanting to play in the Big 12, something that changed when the Cornhuskers switched conferences.

“I watched (Nebraska) a lot,” Burkhead said. “I was a big college football guy growing up. I had always been watching them, but as they showed more interest, I started watching them more.”

But the switch to the Big Ten didn’t faze Burkhead. His aforementioned junior year coincided with Nebraska’s first season in their new conference, and Burkhead immediately made himself a top performer.

In his first conference game against Wisconsin, Burkhead picked up 96 yards on 18 carries. He followed up that performance with a 119-yard effort against Ohio State, picking up 96 of his yards and his only touchdown in the fourth quarter of a Nebraska comeback.

The Cornhuskers relied on Burkhead throughout conference play. He picked up 100 yards in each of the following two weeks after Ohio State. His best game of the year came late in the season against Iowa, when Burkhead was handed the ball for a school-record 38 times, picking up 160 yards for his seventh 100-yard game of the season.

But being considered as one of the best is not enough for Burkhead.

“It’s a cool honor, but it’s not very important,” Burkhead said when asked how he felt about being regarded as one of the top backs in the conference. “I’m just worried about winning a Big Ten championship.”

Burkhead has fought injuries throughout the year, even missing two games in the middle of the season. He returned for the Cornhuskers’ game against Idaho State and rushed 8 times for 119 yards.

The senior, who hopes to play football for as long as possible and coach after he graduates, will get a chance for revenge against NU on Saturday. Last year, the Wildcats held Burkhead to only 69 yards on 22 carries.

Given his body of work against the rest of the conference, NU should be prepared for a bounce back performance Saturday.

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