The scene is often repeated early in each new Nebraska football season.
A reporter will approach an interview already underway, look at the Husker answering questions, and ask someone on the periphery: “Who’s that?”
The situation is understandable. Coach Bo Pelini’s policy is that those who haven’t played are off-limits, so newcomers and redshirts haven’t been interviewed at Nebraska, meaning a fair number of players aren’t yet familiar to reporters.
Everyone knows the veterans, of course, Rex Burkhead, Taylor Martinez, Baker Steinkuhler, Daimion Stafford, Brett Maher. Just not the new guys or the lower-unit back-ups.
Ameer Adbullah would be in the former category. He’s a sophomore and a running back besides. Even the faces of new running backs are usually familiar; it’s the nature of the position.
So reporters should have recognized Abdullah from last season. And beyond what he did as a true freshman, his distinctive dreadlocks were a giveaway.
Except that the dreadlocks are gone, clipped in July.
“I cut my hair just to cut it,” Abdullah said early in fall camp. “I had no reason. I had it for about three years. And I was like, ‘Well, it’s time to change the look.’ ”
Actually, the impetus might have come from his girlfriend. Plus, his mom likes his new, closely cropped look, he said following Nebraska’s 49-20 opening-game victory against Southern Miss. It’s also cooler, so in this summer’s heat, that’s a bonus. Bottom line, “it’s fine.”
In addition to no dreadlocks, no hair really, Adbullah is as much as 10 pounds heavier than the 180 he weighed at Capital One Bowl time and he’s physically more defined, thanks to a year in Husker strength coach James Dobson’s program. “I feel like it’s mostly muscle,” said Abdullah.
Dobson has helped his conditioning, too, and that was important on Saturday. Not only was the temperature at kickoff 88 degrees but also the pace of Nebraska’s offense demands it.
Even though Abdullah was prepared on both counts, he couldn’t have imagined the role he would play. Burkhead carried three times, the second covering 57 yards for the game’s first touchdown, before a sprained ligament in his left knee sent him to the sideline.
That meant Abdullah was next. “When I found out, I just got the other running backs together, ‘Hey, we gotta step up. Things like that happen. We prepared all fall camp for it, so this is the moment, step up,’” said Abdullah. “Every day we prepare like Rex is hurt or I’m hurt or Imani’s hurt.”
“Imani” is true freshman Imani Cross, who saw more action than he probably would have if Burkhead had been healthy. Cross joined Abdullah and sophomore Braylon Heard in carrying the load.
Abdullah carried the biggest load, rushing 15 times for 81 yards, catching four passes for 39 yards and a touchdown, and returning four punts.
Losing Burkhead was no small matter. “There’s nobody like Rex Burkhead. He’s special,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “But we’ve got other guys here, too, that can play, and they have to be willing and able to step up. And with that comes responsibility. You’re a running back. You’re at a place like this. You’ve got to put a lot of weight on your shoulders.
“Seemingly, for a number of those guys it was their first game where they really got a chance to show a lot . . . even Ameer. That was really the first time Ameer’s really been able to get the ball the number of times that he did, and so it was good to see.”
Abdullah was among the first players to come to the interview area after the game, and a reporter or two had to ask who he was. He claims some teammates didn’t recognize him his first time in the locker room after cutting off the dreadlocks.
He entered with his head down, he said, and “everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the new kid?’”
Sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell wasn’t among those. “Ameer’s one of my best friends, but I was mad at him,” said Bell, who has a distinctive Afro. “I was so mad at him because guys with long hair need to keep their long hair. You can’t just be shaving it off.”
“I’m pretty spontaneous,” Abdullah said. “So I might just wake up, ‘You know what, I’m growing it back out.’ But for now, I’m just going to keep it low-cut.”