Wednesday, April 28, 2010

High Hopes For Helu

There were moments last year when Roy Helu looked so effortlessly evasive, he kept you from remembering he was playing hurt.

There was the 63-yard burst through the heart of Oklahoma's highly-rated run defense in the second quarter of Nebraska's thrilling upset last November, when he cut sharply and accelerated to full speed before the Sooners could react.

A week later, he had that 30-yard, victory-sealing sideline scamper against Kansas, bursting by diving Jayhawks on a slow-developing, third-down toss play. Helu scored the game's final touchdown later on the drive, wincing in pain and clutching his shoulder as he trotted off the field.

The Kansas State game sticks out, too. Helu's longest run was 18 yards, when he tripped over Ricky Henry's foot at the line of scrimmage, but gathered himself, angled toward the sideline and stiff-armed a Wildcat free safety on his way out of bounds. He finished that contest just five short of a third straight 100-yard game.

Yes, Helu had his moments. There's no denying that.

It makes one ponder the season-long playmaking potential of a healthy Helu, the shifty and explosive I-back who tallied 1,147 rushing yards despite an injury-filled junior season.

But here's the reality check: Helu won't ever be 100 percent during the season. No top running back is.

His objective as a senior veteran is to figure out how to make contributions - like he did against Oklahoma, Kansas and Kansas State - every time out. Even when the pain seems unbearable.

"When he put his mind to the fact that he was going to go out and play no matter what, he was pretty good," running backs coach Tim Beck said. "In fairness to Roy, it was the first time he was a full-time, 20- to 25-carry guy. And I think it shocked him maybe a little bit."

So much so, that Helu went missing a couple of times last year.

He had five carries, 24 yards and two lost fumbles against Iowa State. He ran seven times for 24 yards the next week against Baylor.

In Nebraska's final two games of the season, Helu ran the ball 13 times for 36 yards. That's when Rex Burkhead took over, carrying the ball 27 total times against Texas and Arizona.

"I think (Helu) was trying," Beck said. "I think he wanted to succeed. He was pushing himself. ... I think he worried about the injury some.

"He's got to learn that he's never going to be completely healthy."

And that includes next season, even though Helu likely won't have to endure the same physical consequences of being the 2009 workhorse. His 220 carries last year were fourth highest in the Big 12.

But because Helu already has two capable ball carriers - Burkhead and sophomore Dontrayevous Robinson - alongside him in the top I-back rotation, the workload should decrease. Burkhead proved himself after returning from a broken foot last year. Robinson, who had 39 carries for 165 yards as a freshman, is developing into an all-around back.

The hope is that fewer carries will help Helu find more consistency as an every-down game-changer.

Beck has also encouraged Helu to tweak his approach at the point of attack. Helu should be more decisive early, Beck said.

It's all worked so far this spring. Senior Niles Paul said Helu's been playing well.

"I see him out there, he's running hard, making those cuts," Paul said. "He's back to the old Roy Helu that everybody loves."

And as a result, Burkhead's still characterizing the No. 1 I-back spot as Helu's to lose.

"It's his starting job and we're all competing for it," Burkhead said. "It's his right now. He's kind of where we want to be."

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