Published Tuesday, November 13, 2012 AT 1:31 PM / Updated at 1:33 PM
Burkhead’s improvement evident in small sample size
Jon Nyatawa Omaha World-Herald

It’s never too difficult to get an honest self-critique out of senior Rex Burkhead, whose humility is maybe the hidden source for his workmanlike approach.

Seven months ago, I asked Burkhead to identify the area of his game he was working hardest to improve.

His answer: Creating more replay-worthy, momentum-changing running plays. More flash. And less of a grind-it-out style. “Just making one cut and going,” Burkhead said in April. “Instead of making those multiple cuts. Big plays often times come when you hit the hole hard and just break arm tackles.”

Three MCL sprains have kept Burkhead from proving if he could fully translate his offseason work to the field for a full season. He’s had a couple promising glimpses, though.

During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, only three times (in 456 attempts) did Burkhead gain more than 30 yards on one carry.

He’s had runs of 73, 61 and 57 in limited action this season, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.

“When you really think about it, he’s played well,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “It’s not like he wasn’t budding to have a great year. I think he was on the verge of having another great year.”

And that’s what makes this injury-filled season so tough on Burkhead, who appears to be handling it well. More on Burkhead is here. … And considering the subject, I assume no one minds if I leave a few quotes about Burkhead below:

>> Funny story from senior P.J. Smith, who remembers stripping the football from Burkhead during preseason camp in 2009. That was Burkhead’s true freshman year. Smith said he looked at Burkhead and yelled, “Hold the ball tighter, rookie!” … Looking back, “I didn’t know what kind of player he was going to be,” Smith said.

>> The first time linebacker Alonzo Whaley matched up against Burkhead? Whaley doesn’t remember specifics. “It was probably in the summer with him juking me out of my socks,” Whaley said. … But Whaley has nothing to be ashamed of. Said Whaley: “A linebacker that would stand right here and tell you that he could hold Rex one-on-one? Please come find me when you get done interviewing him.”

>> Burkhead and Eric Martin playing video games? Yes, that has happened. Many times. But it’s a little weird, according to Martin. “He’s just different,” said Martin, who’s notorious for his trash-talking. “I don’t know. He’s like your parent, but our age.”

>> Jamal Turner said he and Kenny Bell were chatting about Burkhead recently. Their conversation went something like this: “We’ve won this many games without our best player.” … But Burkhead’s still making an impact, even if he can’t play, Turner said. “I’m sure guys from Penn State probably saw him on our sideline, cheering us on, into the game — they’d think he was a coach or something. He’s just that type of person. He loves the team and we love him back.”

About Jon Nyatawa

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008. He and his laptop, cell phone, tape recorder, pen and notebook all live in Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @JonNyatawa. Email him here: jon.nyatawa@owh.com. He welcomes feedback.