A year ago, Nebraska running back Roy Helu entered fall camp thinking he and fellow junior back Quentin Castille were going to be one of the best backfield tandems in the Big 12 Conference.
A couple weeks later, Castille was long gone, and Helu was left to shoulder the load for an offense otherwise rebuilding across the board.
Though he more than held up his end while the rest of the offense worked to find its rhythm, the increased responsibility finally took its toll on the Danville, Calif., native, as he steadily wore down with injuries as the season went along.
This year, through the first three practices of fall camp at least, looks to be a completely different story.
With Helu hampered by injuries, true freshmen Rex Burkhead and Dontrayevous Robinson all got their time in the spotlight last season. As a result, the Huskers now feature two capable and experienced running backs to take the pressure off Helu, a luxury for which he is undoubtedly grateful.
"Last year, I felt like I put some unnecessary pressure on myself when Quentin left," Helu said. "Now I don't feel like I have to do as much because I have some really great players behind me."
For Helu, the best part of knowing he has Burkhead and Robinson to help should the responsibility in the running game is the fact that he was able to scale back his offseason training in order to allow himself to finally get healthy again.
By focusing more on lighter weight lifting and increased conditioning, Helu was able to let his injured shoulder get back to 100 percent while also maintaining his optimal playing weight (220 pounds) and increasing his speed and stamina.
Running backs coach Tim Beck said he's noticed Helu taking a different approach this offseason, mostly in that the senior doesn't feel he needs to do everything on his own.
"I think he's playing more relaxed instead of putting that pressure on himself," Beck said. "He's playing fast. That's the biggest thing I've talked to him about was stop trying to make every play be a touchdown."
Burkhead said the competition between the three backs has made all of them better players, though he said Helu is and will continue to be the No. 1 back throughout the season.
He said Helu has taken on the role of leader and mentor for his younger backfield mates, working with each of them one-on-one as much as possible during summer conditioning. With the way he's embraced his supporting cast, it's easy to see that Helu is ready to welcome all the help he can get.
"We're all competing every day," Burkhead said. "Roy's the head guy right now. He's our mentor, he's our leader in the film room, off the field and on the field. Definitely every day we're competing for playing time, and that makes us all better.
"He's made me a lot better. Whether it's in the film room or making different reads or cuts, he's helped me pick up my game tremendously."
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