Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead can't really tell the difference. When asked to distinguish between the Big 12 defenses he used to face and the Big Ten units he battled for the first time last season, Burkhead gives the kind of answer many have come to expect from the Cornhuskers' soft-spoken workhorse.
"To me, it's really just lining up and playing football," Burkhead said.
Burkhead lined up effectively last season, reeling off 15 rushing touchdowns and 1,357 rushing yards, the most by a Nebraska running back since 1997. His 104.4 rushing yards per game were good for third among league players and helped propel him to All-Big Ten recognition at season's end.
Nebraska had the luxury of teaming Burkhead with quarterback Taylor Martinez to form an explosive rushing combination that finished 15th nationally. While the dual-threat Martinez produced the bulk of the highlight material, Burkhead served as the fuel behind the Huskers' attack. The rising senior will reprise that role this fall as the most important offensive player on Nebraska's roster -- and as a true Heisman contender.
"He's the total package," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "Anybody would die to have him on their football team."
The most valuable part of that package may be Burkhead's durability. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound back carried the ball 284 times last season, only two touches shy of the school record. His 38 carries in the regular-season finale against Iowa set the Cornhusker mark.
"Mr. Consistency," is what Tim Beck, the Huskers' second-year offensive coordinator, calls Burkhead. "He works his butt off, and he studies the game. He has that durability and mental toughness, in terms of being a guy you can count on."
But versatility, not durability, may be what keeps Burkhead afloat in the Heisman race. Depending on the situation last season, Beck had Burkhead fill spots at fullback, slot receiver and quarterback as Nebraska's jack-of-all-trades. Burkhead showed some skill as a pass-catcher, notching 177 yards and two touchdowns on 21 receptions.
"It was a good year," Burkhead said of his junior campaign. "My teammates, they allowed me to have the success I did. But we definitely have higher expectations for ourselves."
Unfortunately for Nebraska, those expectations have proven unrealistic in recent seasons. The Huskers' inability to lock down a conference title and BCS berth has had as much to do with Burkhead becoming a national name as his play. Despite four consecutive seasons with at least nine wins, the Huskers have not claimed a conference championship since 1999 and finished just third in the Leaders Division last fall despite a 7-1 league mark. Notions of a program stuck in neutral have resonated throughout Lincoln, where mediocre football doesn't sit well with the Nebraska faithful -- or with Heisman voters.
The Nebraska offense, which returns eight starters, should benefit from the familiarity that comes with playing a second year in Beck's system.
"With our staff putting in this system last year, nobody on the offensive side of the ball had ever been part of it," Beck said. "We taught it quickly through the spring and went through fall, but here's a team doing something completely different [this season]. Now they get it."
The team's passing offense finished a mere 104th nationally last season, partially because of Martinez's inconsistent play, partially because opponents knew to key in on Nebraska's run-heavy attack. A more dynamic and consistent season from Martinez, whom Pelini says is prepared to "reach that next level," will keep defenses honest when the Huskers keep it on the ground.
That's good news for Burkhead, who seems poised for the kind of year that could put his name, and the team's name, back on the national radar. A repeat of last year's 1,300-yard output would make Burkhead the school's second all-time leading rusher. And after an offseason of heavy film study, Burkhead is confident he'll attain his goal of improved reaction time in the backfield.
As he better reacts to defenders, a nation of Heisman voters might better react to Burkhead. In February, oddsmaker Danny Sheridan released his early Heisman favorites, listing Burkhead as a 25-1 shot at taking home the trophy in December. That puts Nebraska's workhorse well behind fellow Big Ten members Monte Ball (6-1) from Wisconsin and Denard Robinson (7-1) from Michigan. But that's OK with the darkhorse contender trying to lead the darkhorse program back to prominence.
"We want to be a great team like Nebraska has had in the past," Burkhead said. "That's the level that we're trying to reach."