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Chris Hickman’s Dual Role, and His Window of Opportunity this Spring

March 10, 2020

Two things that require mentioning before even getting to the main subject of this piece.

The first: sophomore wideout Wan’Dale Robinson is very cognizant of the fact he’s one of only two Husker wideouts participating in spring football who has caught a Division 1 pass for the Huskers.

If senior JD Spielman’s leave of absence persists (head coach Scott Frost said Monday he wouldn’t call the departure permanent, but still), Robinson would go into the 2020 season as the most-experienced wideout on the roster. He started to take on more of a leadership role as a freshman than most freshmen would ever welcome, and he spoke Monday about having one eye toward helping the “younger” guys develop (a relatively hilarious statement given the context).

Robinson is also expecting to play more in the slot in 2020. On the opening day of spring practice, he worked exclusively at wideout.

“I feel like I’ll do a lot of the same things I did last year, but a little bit more as a complete receiver,” Robinson said when asked how he expects his on-field role to evolve this season. “Just being able to showcase what I can do in the slot more. Hopefully, in our running back room, we get some depth to help with Dedrick and some of the redshirt guys. I feel like just being in the slot a lot more, that’ll probably be the big difference.”

The second: tight end coach Sean Beckton’s room is stocked full at the moment. It’s top-heavy, with three juniors and one senior making up the rotation, but has the potential to be a strength of the team. So much so that Beckton said Monday he, head coach Scott Frost and new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick have discussed three-tight end packages for the fall.

“Whether we show that this spring, I don’t know if we’ll get to it, but there’s opportunities there for getting multiple guys on the field,” Beckton said.

Jack Stoll, the incumbent starter and the only senior of the group, progressed as a route-runner a year ago but took a step back as a blocker. Beckton thought his technique slipped as the season wore on. Austin Allen, Beckton thought, overtook Stoll in that area. Sit-out transfer Travis Vokolek bulked up to 260 and worked most of the flaws out of his game; Beckton said he came to them in exclusively a right-handed stance, which doesn’t make lining up on the left of the formation plausible.

“I expect the fans to know his name really early,” Beckton said. “He’s naturally gifted in the passing game. … Big, strong kid that can run. When the ball’s in the air, he’s going to go up and get it. That hasn’t changed. We’ve detailed a little more of his route-running ability but the biggest thing he’s improved on is his point of attack and being able to block people up front.”

More: Frost | Lubick | Dawson ($) | Lubick and the Cubes ($)

So, with wideout being barren and tight end being overflowing, there was a big 6-foot-6 question mark of a man with regards to where he belonged.

“Was” being the operative word because there is no such question after a day of spring ball.

Nebraska wants Chris Hickman on the football field. Doing so at this juncture means putting him out wide. With Robinson operating in the slot and the three-headed rotation of tight ends in front of him all being upwards of 40-, 50-pounds heavier, Nebraska feels it has a matchup problem to exploit.

“He’s a dual guy, he’s always going to be that for us here at Nebraska,” Beckton said. “He’s going to play some receiver, he’s going to play some tight end, he’s going to play a lot of different places for us. He’s talented enough, physical enough, so it’s just making sure he gets enough reps at each position. I want him to understand at tight end, there are some certain things he’s going to have to continue to work on, but I want him to really concentrate right now on being a receiver. I’ll grab him when I need him.”

Beckton didn’t necessarily have to fight to keep Hickman in his room, the coaches all see where he’s needed more.

“Trust some new guys to play. I think we went into today's practice with four scholarship receivers on the field. That's not near enough,” Frost said when asked about the job in the receiver room facing Lubick this spring. “Hickman played receiver today. He was going to start at outside for us. I think he has enough experience at tight end that if we need him he can go and be a second tight end and do those things too. Being in his second year, familiarity with the offense will certainly help with that. We need him outside right now.”

Frost stopped at “he had a good first day.” Hickman’s a 6-foot-6, 215-pound redshirt freshman who only played in four games in 2019, so anything further would be tantamount to the HyPe TrAiN fuel everyone is treating as toxic waste this time around. But to say the Huskers aren’t at least intrigued by the prospects of pairing Robinson, early-enrollee 4-star Alante Brown (who by all accounts has been strong so far), 6-foot-4 Omar Manning and 6-foot-2 freshman Zavier Betts with the kind of unique athlete Hickman would be underselling it.

“There are certain packages we’re looking to put in down the road to get him on the field and do some things,” Beckton said.

Last season that meant tight end and wideout usage, but also a handful of snaps in a split backfield next to quarterback Adrian Martinez. The Huskers’ offensive staff has done a good deal of self-scouting this offseason, and one area Beckton said they’ve keyed in on is red zone efficiency. That could mean more tight end targets. It certainly means a tweaked practice regiment to allow more days of red-zone work.

Hickman’s physicality and height could make him an asset there.

“Chris is versatile,” Robinson said of his fellow 2019 classmate. “He can put his hand in the ground if he needs to and block. But, Chris as a receiver, he’ll add another dimension we don’t really have—some size, blocking on the perimeter, he’ll go up and get balls whenever we throw it up to him. Chris can do a lot of different things and that’ll help us a lot.”

The blocking is key. Lubick arrives from the same school of thought as Frost: no block, no rock. “You’ve got to be able to block to play in this offense,” Lubick said. And Hickman’s physical presence was on display even on Day 1.

“He showed up, in limited reps, as a physical player you can count on as a point-of-attack blocker,” Lubick said. “So, bringing that into our receiver room is a big deal, a guy who enjoys contact and likes blocking.”

What exactly that amounts to on the field is still anyone’s guess at this point—perimeter blocking is one of Lubick’s areas of emphasis this offseason—but this, at the very least, shouldn’t be deemed a stop-gap option until reinforcements arrive in the summer.

“It’s very hard to evaluate someone that’s not here,” Lubick said. “I’ve told the guys who are here, ‘Hey, there’s some guys who aren’t here right now, so it’s an opportunity for you to show what you can do.’ They get that.”

That we got here—Hickman moving around after just one season in Lincoln—has more to do with external factors than anything the Omaha native did himself, but whether Hickman carves out a role for himself as an outside receiver, whether he’s sharing the field with two other guys he spent last year competing against, that’s all dependent on Hickman himself.

This staff thinks spring ball is all about maximizing windows of opportunity.

Hickman’s window is wide open.

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