Less than a year ago, Roy Helu was preparing himself to be Nebraska's only proven offensive weapon and shoulder the load of all that it entailed.
After losing fellow running back Quentin Castille during fall camp, Helu suddenly became the Huskers' most experienced skill position player, meaning he would have to essentially carry the offense until the rest of his teammates got up to speed.
By the end of the season, that responsibility understandably took its toll.
Though he still managed to rank fourth in the Big 12 Conference with 1,147 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, his production was undoubtedly slowed due to a handful of injuries he dealt with throughout the year.
Coming into this spring, however, things are different for the senior from Danville, Calif. Not only does he have a pair of promising sophomore backs behind him in Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson, he's also coming into the year with a new approach to his game as a whole.
Running backs coach Tim Beck said he and Helu have spent the off-season working on simplifying his running style to maximize the blocking in front of him and limit the time defenses have to close in on him.
In other words, the goal has been for him to stop trying to create big plays and just let them come to him.
"I've tried to change a little bit in his running style to make one cut and go," Beck said. "I felt towards the end he was trying to make too many big runs instead of just feeling it. He was looking too much, pitter patting and stuff like that, and maybe not playing as fast. So I've tried to change that a little bit on him and make him make one cut and go.
"I've been real pleased with what he's done. He's running behind his pads, he's getting real low. He's playing more physical."
Another aspect of Helu's game that he and Beck have been working on has been his pass protection, as Beck said Helu struggled at times getting into the right position to pick up blitzes last season.
"It's not necessarily his effort in pass protection," Beck said. "At times it's assignments, but it's more technique."
As for the prospect of sharing carries with Burkhead and Robinson, Helu has welcomed the competition with open arms. Not only will having more experience at running back help keep him healthier throughout the season, it will also provide some much-needed competition at the position.
In today's game, Beck said, the old school feature back who carries the ball 25 times a game is a thing of the past.
"I think the thing is you've got to have more than one," he said. "Roy understands that. Anybody that thinks you can just line up and hand it to the tailback 20 times, 25 times and catch five passes and play 14 games, it don't happen."
Maybe more than anything else, the biggest change in Helu this off-season that has pleased Beck the most has been the way he's embraced the role of a leader of the offense.
Before, Helu was more apt to lead by example and let other players handle the vocal aspects. This spring, Helu has taken charge in every area.
"I'm really pleased with his leadership," Beck said. "He's always been a good leader by his actions, but he's been a lot more vocal. I've been real pleased with that."
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