CHICAGO — At first, Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t thrilled when Nebraska's sports information director put his name in the running for the featured player speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon without his knowledge.
“I didn’t want my name on the ballot at all,” Abdullah said during a small roundtable interview session Tuesday before his speech. “I’m terrible at speaking. Ironically, they picked me, so here goes nothing.”
He was being self-deprecating. Abdullah did just fine during his comments to hundreds of Big Ten fans and media.
Abdullah mentioned “capitalism” in college athletics as a reference to the ongoing unionization issue at Northwestern and the autonomy and cost-of-attendance discussion going on around the power five conferences.
Instead of dwelling on those hot-button topics, Abdullah focused on the advantages of being a student-athlete. Nowhere was that more evident than when he returned home to Alabama to find one of his high school friends, who went to college as an athlete himself, kicked out of school and facing a drug addiction. Another was in jail.
“These aren’t people I read about or saw on TV,” Abdullah said. “These are my friends. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any student-athlete in this room.”
Abdullah’s growth in Lincoln has been stark, he says.
By his own admission, Abdullah was “socially awkward” as a high school senior from Homewood, Ala. At a high school all-star game — at a time when Abdullah was still being recruited as a defensive back — he and eventual Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon struck up a friendship that would last into their college years.
Both were introverts, so they ate breakfast together all week. By last spring, they were Nos. 1-2 in the Big Ten in rushing and contemplating going to the NFL Draft. They talked it over and elected to return to school.
“We’ve been clicking ever since then,” Gordon said. “We talk all through the season. He’s a great person to know. We’re good friends.”
At Nebraska, Abdullah had no choice but to come out of his shell. Nebraska recruits nationally, so Abdullah arrived in Lincoln around a handful of players from all walks of life.
Abdullah will talk anything now. He’ll joke with reporters. A day before his speech to Big Ten fans and media, he joked: “Speech? I’m making a speech? Uh oh.”
But if you really want to get Abdullah going, start talking draft trends and running backs. No running back has been drafted in the first round since three did it in 2012. What does that mean for Abdullah and his pal Gordon?
“Now we’re talking. Now we’re talking,” Abdullah said.
A self-described film junkie since age 7 when his father filmed park league games, Abdullah said he watches NFL Live on ESPN regularly. That leads him to believe the days of running backs are coming back.
“Football works in fads,” Abdullah said. “This is the D-end fad.”
Abdullah sees tall, stand-up defensive ends and outside linebackers like South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and UCLA’s Anthony Barr — both first-round picks last year — and sees his future. Those two players are built to rush the passer.
The answer? Abdullah says its the running back.
“Everything eventually comes full circle,” Abdullah said. “At some point, the NFL is going to come to the conclusion that the stand-up guys aren’t the best guys against the run. To beat those guys, you’ve got to get more running backs. It’s going to come back around to running backs in the first round.”
But just in case the running back pendulum doesn’t swing back to Abdullah in time for the 2015 draft, he’s doing everything he can to improve his pro potential.
Abdullah is a slippery back and tough to tackle. But he’s only 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds. Even if running backs become en vogue in the next year, he’ll need to round out his skill set. He’s playing on special teams in 2014. He says he wants to block punts, return punts and return kickoffs.
If that makes him a Heisman contender, he won’t say. And what’s the point of projecting? Abdullah remembers last season’s surprises all too well.
“I don’t like to get caught up in preseason accolades because (Boston College running back) Andre Williams didn’t know he was going to win the Doak Walker award. (Oregon State wide receiver) Brandin Cooks as well with the Biletnikoff.
“You never know when it’s your time.”