A simple question that causes college football fans to pause: Who is the best running back in Husker football history? The bronze statue-carrying Mike Rozier doesn’t cut the mustard in my eyes.
For my money, that man is Lawrence Phillips.
I know, I know. LP is known for his off-the-field transgressions considerably more than what he did between the hashes. However, rest assured that Phillips was a talented running back; THE most talented running back in Nebraska’s proud history of running backs.
It’s hard to look past Phillips’ off-field issues to study his athletic prowess. They are numerous and terrible, on that we all agree. That said, I want to make an honest effort for the purpose of this debate.
Phillips was the type of back that could run over or around you, whichever he chose. He had speed, power, catching ability, vision and agility. Everything a coach could ask for.
Take a look at his freshman season. Coming from Los Angeles, CA with many schools recruiting him, he walked onto Nebraska’s campus and was immediately buried on the depth chart behind some great running backs including Clinton Childs and Calvin Jones. As we all know, that didn’t last long.
He was far too physically gifted to keep off the field and began to take carries away from veterans.
Perhaps his national coming out party was the de facto national championship game against Florida State in 1993 when Jones was injured. He scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter in addition to his 13 carries and 71 yards.
His sophomore year was his best statistically. He rushed for 1,722 yards during the regular season, a record that still stands for second-year players, to go along with 16 touchdowns.
1994 was a tumultuous season for Husker football, mostly because of injuries to their top two quarterbacks Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer. Perhaps this is ‘Exhibit A’ of why Phillips in the best back in Big Red football’s 125-year history.
He played the entire season as a starter, most of it without his top quarterback.
That put all the focus for defenses on Phillips. The problem was that they still couldn’t stop him. 11 straight 100-yard games during the 1994 season including a 126-yard effort against Kansas State when he found himself playing behind third-team quarterback Matt ‘The Terminator’ Turman.
Turman only attempted four passes, completing just two. However, Phillips amassed his yardage in about only three quarters of work after missing parts of the second and third with a hand injury.
At the end of the year, he finished eighth in Heisman voting.
Have you heard the phrase “When you play with the best, you get better”?
Heisman winner Mike Rozier, an amazing back alone, had an astounding supporting cast around him including the other two members of the famed “Triplets” in Turner Gill and Irving Fryar. Add in All-American guard Dean Steinkuhler and the major plus that they all had their health.
I won’t make the laughable statement that Lawrence Phillips didn’t play with talent around him.
That’d be asinine to suggest, but consider this: he and Tommie Frazier (who was recently named the best college football player of the 1990s by NFL.com) only played a total of nine full games together in 1994 and 1995 after Phillips was named the starting I-back due to either injury (Frazier) or suspension (Phillips).
I don’t want to downplay Brook Berringer’s contributions to the team, but he was definitely the second string quarterback of those national championship teams.
Phillips’ junior year was unfortunately his last. The Oklahoma State Cowboys were the season’s first opponent and his stat line read as follows: 12 carries for 153 yards and three touchdowns. His second game was against Michigan State. Stat line: 22 carries for 206 yards and four touchdowns.
That’s over 10 yards per carry. Folks, those are Heisman numbers two games into the season.
Rozier would produce 16 carries for 71 yards and 19 carries for 191 yards and four touchdowns during the first two games of his junior season.
Everyone is quite aware that the 1995 Nebraska football team is considered the best of all-time despite missing Lawrence Phillips for the better part of the year. Just imagine if he’d kept playing and didn’t have to come back after such a long layoff.
Then-freshman back Ahman Green took over for Phillips post-suspension and gained over 1,100 yards himself starting another great rushing legacy.
Phillips would have dominated the carries over Green and when paired with Frazier as they ran Tom Osborne’s vaunted option attack, he’d have been the clear Heisman frontrunner as a result. Apologies to Eddie George and ‘Touchdown’ Tommie himself.
While only playing in five games, LP’s stats still stand out. 71 attempts for 568 yards (an average of 109.4 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry).
Perhaps his finest game was his last. In the 1996 Fiesta Bowl against the Florida Gators, he ran the ball 25 times for 165 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a 16 yard screen pass for a score.
From 1993 to 1995, Phillips amassed over 2,700 yards and 30 touchdowns over 27 games. He also added 28 catches for 192 yards to his résumé. The only reason those numbers fall short of all-time marks at Nebraska was due to lack of volume.
Lawrence Phillips was a physical specimen and a headcase, but those two things are mutually exclusive.
While he will never be one of the faces on Husker football’s “Mount Rushmore of I-Backs”, he remains the best of them.
Be sure to like Husker Corner on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, snag the FanSided app (iOS) (Android) and subscribe to our newsletter below to keep plugged into Husker Nation from all over the globe.