LINCOLN, Neb. — Rex Burkhead would love to say he’ll play Saturday when Nebraska meets Minnesota on senior day.
He can’t, though, because he just doesn’t know. It’s been this way for weeks.
The 2011 All-Big Ten running back sprained his left knee in the opener of his final season at Nebraska and has aggravated the injury twice. He’s missed five games and had to leave early in three others.
One day, the knee will feel good, and he’ll think he can play that week.
The next day, the knee hurts and he knows he won’t.
“I think it kills him every week,” coach Bo Pelini said. “That’s just who he is.”
Burkhead was on the practice field Monday and participated on a limited basis. He said he’s “pretty close” to being able to play in a game, and he’s doing all he can to make it happen against the Gophers.
“My last home game here,” he said. “Being a senior, it would mean the world to get out on the field.”
The native of Plano, Texas, is the most popular player on the team judging by the overwhelming number of fans dressed in No. 22 jerseys on game days.
Last season, he averaged 104 yards a game and his 284 carries were two shy of the school record. His 1,357 yards were the most by a Nebraska running back since 1997.
A similar season this year would have moved him past Ahman Green as Nebraska’s No. 2 all-time rusher behind 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier. As it is, Burkhead is sixth with 3,059 yards.
Ameer Abdullah has exceeded expectations as Burkhead’s replacement, with five 100-yard games. Burkhead said he’s been impressed with how the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Abdullah has been able to run effectively inside the tackles.
“He’s done a tremendous job all around,” Burkhead said. “Not just running the ball but pass blocking, catching passes out of the backfield, just everything.”
Burkhead said he won’t require surgery on his left knee and that it will fully heal in time.
“It’s just that right now it’s tough because we’re in the middle of the season,” he said. “We don’t really have that time.”
Because Burkhead has aggravated the injury twice, against Ohio State and Northwestern, Pelini doesn’t want the running back to play again until he’s 100 percent.
“When he’s right, when he feels like he’s ready to go, believe me, I’ll be the first one to stand on the table and say, `Let’s go, let’s go,’ “ Pelini said. “That has to come from him. He knows his body. We have the best medical staff going, so when the time is right, then they’ll tell me.”
Even with Burkhead out most of the season, the Huskers are first in the Big Ten and seventh nationally with 269 yards rushing a game. The Huskers have gone over 200 yards in nine of their 10 games and over 300 on three occasions.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez said there hasn’t been a drop-off without Burkhead, but the Huskers do miss his leadership on the field.
“When he’s on the field, all the fans are excited and our team is excited he’s out there,” Martinez said.
Burkhead said he’s gained a new perspective from watching from the sidelines.
“Definitely makes you appreciate the game. No question about it,” he said. “You always have love and passion for the game. When you’re not out there getting a taste of it, it definitely makes you just have a new outlook on it. When you get back out there you want to hit it full stride.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.