2015 NFL Draft Prospect You Need To Know: Big Ten
A couple of months before the start of greatest stretch in the history of Nebraska football -- 36 wins in 37 games, the last three Big Eight Conference titles, Tom Osborne's two national championships, the 1995 champs establishing itself as perhaps the greatest college football team of all-time -- Ameer Abdullah was born.
Like an entire generation of Cornhuskers fans, Abdullah grew up in a world not dominated by Nebraska. Osborne retired, the triple option became extinct, addresses changed, first to the Big 12 and then the Big Ten. The legacies of larger-than-life stars like Mike Rozier and Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips shrunk down to the unimpressive size of agate type, legends reduced to names in record books.
This season, the land of Lincoln will look back at those glory days, celebrating the 20th birthday of that undefeated year of "Unfinished Business." But nostalgia should not dominate the attention this year, or fans risk missing something they haven't seen in the decades since those glory days: a true state-of-the-art running back.
Make no mistake. Abdullah is not Rozier or Phillips, guys who ran harder than the Heisman Trophy Rozier won in 1983. Instead, he is a back built for today's NFL, more in the mold of a Reggie Bush or C.J. Spiller than any of those historical Huskers.
At 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Abdullah will never be exclusively a between-the-tackles runner, though he has been used in that capacity plenty. You don't rush for 20 career touchdowns exclusively off the edge.
Abdullah is a smooth, shifty runner, who glides naturally into creases and accelerates to exploit space. His style is a marked contrast of Nebraska backs past, but his production is right on par. He's 23 yards shy of 3,000 for his career, has an outside shot at Rozier's record (if he matches last season's output -- 1,690 yards -- he'll be 113 short of Rozier).
What makes Abdullah an intriguing pro prospect, though, is everything else he does. He has 51 career receptions for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns. And he has racked up nearly 1,500 yards on kick and punt returns. Abdullah enters the 2014 season with 4,914 total yards -- the most by any active FBS player -- which ranks third all-time at Nebraska, behind Rozier and Johnny Rodgers. It may be Johnny the Jet with whom Abdullah most reasonably compares; he lacks Rodgers' explosive top gear, but he's the kind of complete package that Rodgers was when he won the Heisman in 1972.
Throw in all the off-field accolades -- the leadership awards and citizenship awards and academic achievements and the maturity he displayed in knowing he needed to come back to college, not just to improve as a running back but to finish his degree -- and you'd think Abdullah would be considered a prized prospect. That's not entirely the case.
First off, the position he plays has fallen from the priority lists of every NFL team. No running back has been taken in the first round in either of the last two drafts. And when NFL teams evaluate backs, they are concerned about the mileage a prospect already has on his tires. Another 250 carries will give Abdullah 800 rushing attempts in college. And if he catches 30 balls, Abdullah will leave Nebraska with about as many offensive touches as Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill had in their college careers combined -- and that's not counting the returns.
There's also another concern about Abdullah's game that will limit any potential rise in his stock. Abdullah is known as a fumbler. As impressive as it would be for him to become the first Nebraska back with three 1,000-yard seasons, it would mean more to NFL evaluators if Abdullah could spend his senior season easing their fears about ball control. Abdullah has fumbled 20 times in his first three seasons. Ask David Wilson what that does for job security at the next level.
Ultimately, Abdullah's ceiling -- like the football he carries -- is in his hands. If he can hang onto the ball and continue to contribute in all facets of the game (he's even a willing blocker), Abdullah will convince someone he's a back who can play in every down-and-distance situation. It might not be enough to get him drafted much earlier than, say, Green was (he was the third-round pick of the Seahawks in 1998, the 76th player taken overall) or put him on the level as another back from the Big Ten, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. But Abdullah should get some long looks from teams with offenses that utilize spread formations (ie: pretty much everyone), as he may be even a better fit in an NFL scheme than he's been at Nebraska.