Thursday, September 17, 2009

Helu Must Prove Himself

Nebraska’s Roy Helu Jr. likely won’t voluntarily say he wants to be regarded as one of the nation’s premier running backs.

He’s far too humble for such bravado. But if you take a second to ask. …

Yes, of course he wants that, he said Monday.

Humility is an endearing trait, and Helu oozes it, but there’s nothing wrong with a teaspoonful of ego now and then. In fact, I think many Nebraska football fans just might relish the thought of Helu saying, if even to himself, “Hey, I’ll carry this team when necessary.”

A 6-foot, 215-pound junior, Helu flies under the national radar, and rightfully so, although that might be about to change. The fact Helu wants it to change might help matters.

“He’ll get to that point (among the elite) — I really believe that,” Nebraska running backs coach Tim Beck said. “If he continues to work hard and be grounded and do the things he needs to do, he’ll play well throughout the season, which is going to help our team. And if your team’s winning and he’s playing well, and carrying the load for us, he’s going to get recognized.”

Helu could take a sizable step in that regard with a big performance Saturday against 13th-ranked Virginia Tech. The game has all the trimmings. Sold-out stadium. Traditional powers. National television.

Yards probably won’t come easily for No. 19 Nebraska, considering Virginia Tech has produced a top-seven defense each of the past five seasons. Helu will be tested thoroughly. Hey, nobody said becoming a star was easy.

The thing is, Helu’s progress as a running back and Nebraska’s progress as a resurgent program are basically intertwined. Let’s face it, it’s difficult for programs to win “measuring-stick” games without a strong running game. Is Helu up to it? Is Big Red up to it? My gut says “yes.” But proof is needed.

Helu’s most meaningful college performance arguably was against Kansas last season (115 yards rushing, 61 receiving). Or maybe Colorado (166, 49). Neither team was ranked. And look what’s become of the Buffs. What a meltdown.

Virginia Tech’s defense doesn’t melt down. It throws down.

Helu understands that. Please rewind to Monday. He wasn’t exactly satisfied with himself.

“The type of running back I want to be can’t settle for mediocrity, and that’s the type of back I was last week,” he said in reference to Nebraska’s 38-9 victory over Arkansas State in which he rushed 14 times for 60 yards and caught four passes for 44.

He missed holes and aborted a few plays instead of letting them develop.

“Roy doesn’t need to be Superman,” Beck said. “He just needs to go out and play.”

Beck appreciates that Helu has worked to get stronger physically.

“What I think, though, is he’s really matured to try to develop his game to be the best all-around back in everything he does — protections, running inside and outside, catching the ball,” Beck said. “Before, he just wanted to play. It was, ‘How do I get on the field?’ ”

Now, it’s: How often should NU take him off it, especially against defenses the caliber of Virginia Tech’s?

How much can Nebraska ask of true freshman I-back Rex Burkhead?

“Rex is mature beyond most freshmen,” Beck said. “If we end up having to play 60 snaps, we’d be fine. I think he’d be good.”

Nebraska might need “great” Saturday. It might need Helu to step up and stamp himself as one of the nation’s finest. Proof is needed.

“He’s confident,” Beck said. “I think Roy knows his abilities. We all know. I mean, he doesn’t have to tell us.”

Here’s a perfect chance to show us.

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