Barring any catastrophic circumstances in 2014, Ameer Abdullah’s decision to return will probably be judged as a very wise one. In fact, if history can be used by the Nebraska coaching staff when potentially trying to persuade a young football player, one might see that leaving early has not always proved that beneficial for the Huskers, especially in regards to their I-backs.
There have been five former Huskers who made the decision to forgo their final season of eligibility in Lincoln in favor of the NFL draft. The first was Derek Brown, who passed on his 1993 senior season. He was selected by the New Orleans Saints, for whom he played four seasons, with his rookie season being his most productive as he rushed for 705 yards.
In Brown’s three years in Lincoln, he showed steady improvement and rushed for over 1000 yards both as a sophomore and a junior. Had Brown returned for a senior season, he could have helped the huskers compete for a national championship. Who knows what the senior may have provided? Two points against the Florida State Seminoles in the title game?
He would have shared carries with the next Huskers player to leave early as Calvin Jones skipped the 1994 season, opting instead to enter the draft where he was taken in the third round by the Oakland Raiders. Jones only accounted for 121 yards in his NFL career, and his early departure excluded him from the ability to call himself a National Champion as the Huskers won the national championship in 1994.
Like the way that the departure of Brown opened the door for Jones’ success, the early departure Jones opened the door for Lawrence Phillips, who was the next Huskers player to skip his senior year. Phillips is an interesting figure in Huskers history and is rarely discussed.
His off-field troubles far overshadow the talent and potential that he had as football player. Phillips is currently incarcerated and will be until at least the age of 57 because of his poor off-field decisions. Nonetheless, he was a two-time national champion for the Huskers and rushed for over 3000 yards in his three years with the program, averaging over six yards per carry.
When the 1996 NFL draft came around, scouts were well aware of his off-field troubles. However, he was considered by many to be one of the best overall talents in the draft. Phillips was taken with the sixth overall pick by the St. Louis Rams. His talent was undeniable, and his potential exceeded the other Huskers on this list, but his behavior prevented him from reaching his potential.
Phillips departure once again opened the door for another Huskers I-back. Ahman Green rivaled Phillips in talent and where Phillips faltered, Green excelled. Green had a great college career, winning two national championships and went on to make four Pro Bowls in the NFL, eventually becoming the Green Bay Packers‘ all-time rushing leader.
When Green left prior to his senior season in 1998, his decision may be the lone exception on the list that proved to be beneficial. 1997 would be legendary head coach Tom Osborne’s final season on the sideline. The Huskers were also losing a great deal of talent both defensively and offensively, including Grant Wistrom, Jason Peter, Aaron Taylor and Scott Frost.
Still, one cannot help but ponder what the return of Green might have meant to his running backs coach Frank Solich, who went on to take over as head coach upon Osborne’s retirement.
The last running back to depart for the NFL early was Brandon Jackson, who was drafted by the Packers in the second round in 2008. Jackson was the exception as the other four who left did so when the team was dominant. It looks like Abdullah has learned from his predecessors and intends on making the most of his opportunity at Nebraska.