There are a myriad of talented college football players who pour their blood, sweat and tears onto the field but never get a chance to play in a National Football League game.
Bengals running back Rex Burkhead is not one of them – he made it into one game as a Bengals rookie last year – but he aims for much more. After finishing his career at the University of Nebraska as the school's No. 5 all-time rusher (3329 yards, 35 total TDs), Burkhead was used to being a star player. He admitted the transition was not easy.
"It was tough, but the biggest thing I had to keep telling myself was to just keep preparing each week like you're playing in the game," said Burkhead. "That's all you can do. You never know what's going to happen if a guy gets hurt during the week in practice. You just have to prepare every single day like you're playing in the game, and go as hard as you can on all the reps, even if it was scout reps against the defense."
After posting career-bests with 1357 rushing yards and 17 total TDs as a junior in 2011, Burkhead suffered a knee sprain in Nebraska's season opener as a senior. He missed a couple of games, but the injury lingered throughout the season. Despite the injury, he still managed to have a successful senior season playing in eight games and rushing for 675 yards and five TDs with a 6.9 yards-per-carry average.
Burkhead was selected by the Bengals in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was thankful for his Bengal teammates to help him ease into life as an NFL player.
"It's definitely different, but it was fun just being able to learn under the veterans like BenJarvus (Green-Ellis), Terence Newman and all those guys," said Burkhead. "It was very neat. Even though I didn't play very much, I still learned a ton in my first year, how to approach every day, and how to take care of your body and all the preparation that goes in day in and day out."
After finding his name on the inactive list for the first nine games of the season, opportunity knocked for Burkhead prior to Game 10, November 10 at Baltimore. Fellow rookie running back Giovani Bernard suffered a rib injury in the previous game and was rated as questionable heading into the Baltimore contest. Although Bernard did end up playing in the game, Burkhead was fortunate enough to suit and up and make his NFL debut. He did not get to carry the ball, but played on special teams.
"It was awesome," said Burkhead. "It was good to get that first experience under my belt and to get some live game speed. I got some in preseason, but it's a whole new level when you get to the regular season. That was fun. It was good to see the speed of the players and kind of react to the things you practice all week on special teams. It was a good first experience, and I'm hoping for some more."
Burkhead did play in all four preseason games, and he played admirably, flashing the kind of potential he had from his days at Nebraska. He finished as the Bengals' third-leading rusher, gaining 130 yards on 28 carries (4.6), with one TD. He also caught five passes for 39 yards.
The Bengals offense is undergoing a change this off-season, as former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden accepted the head coaching position with the Washington Redskins. Hue Jackson was promoted from running backs coach to offensive coordinator, and it's no secret that he likes to run the ball. In his last stop calling plays in Oakland, where he was offensive coordinator in 2010 and head coach in 2011, Jackson's teams finished second and seventh in the NFL in rushing. Burkhead is hoping to benefit from Jackson's offense.
"Coach Jackson has a great mind for the game of football, and I know he likes using the running backs, like he did with (Darren) McFadden in Oakland and the rest of that crew," said Burkhead. "If he wants to use me in every way possible, I'm ready for it. I'm waiting for my opportunity, and if he calls my number I'll be ready."
Opportunity is a key word for Burkhead. Opportunity can come at any time in the NFL, even when it is least expected. Burkhead is doing everything he can to be ready to seize any opportunity that may come his way.
"I'm running and doing a lot of speed work right now, and a lot of strength work as well just to make sure I'm in the best shape possible," said Burkhead. "Going into year two, I'm just more confident in knowing what to expect. In your rookie year, you don't know how things are going to go with schedules, and knowing the playbook and understanding plays and all that. This year I'm just more comfortable with that, and I'm more confident with preparation and going out on the field and performing."
It is not uncommon for a second-year player to make a significant leap from year one to year two. The Bengals had a prime example of that this past season in wide receiver Marvin Jones, who went from relative obscurity to now, a potential budding star. Burkhead hopes to be that guy this season.
"I'm trying to stay on top of my game because you never know when your opportunity is going to come, and when that opportunity comes you've got to make the most of it," said Burkhead. "I'm excited for the season and ready to start up some workouts here. Who Dey!"