Now in its third year as a summer series, we’re looking at Huskers who could be major swing factors in Nebraska’s upcoming season. One a week, working from the bottom up.
- No. 10 Chase Contreraz
- No. 9 Garrett Nelson
- No. 8 Chris Hickman
- No. 7 Ty Robinson
- No. 6 Dedrick Mills
- No. 5 Matt Farniok
- No. 4 Collin Miller
- No. 3 Cam Taylor-Britt
No. 2 Omar Manning
At what point, I wonder, does Omar Manning catch his first Nebraska touchdown?
It’s not a straightline answer, of course. Quarterback Adrian Martinez only tossed 10 of ‘em last season, against nine interceptions at that. And Nebraska’s trend under head coach Scott Frost has been to run the ball a good deal of the time (50.2% run rate in ’18, 59.9% in ’19). When you gotta catch the ball, there are a ton of factors that have to work in your team’s favor for you to even have a chance to make an impact.
But Manning, the junior college wideout from Kilgore (TX) Community College, the 6-foot-4 deep ball threat who was the No. 2 overall JUCO prospect in the 2020 class, the guy Frost has said is unlike any other wideout he’s coached, that dude could do some things.
Nebraska has an offensive line that, one way or another, should be a plus. Nebraska has a quarterback in Adrian Martinez who is due for a bounceback season. Nebraska has a running back in Dedrick Mills who can play the role of thunder and lightning in the same series. Nebraska has a slot wideout in Wan’Dale Robinson who, I swear, has the real-life version of Madden 20’s X-factor “First One Free” superstar ability.
The thing that was missing from the equation was the “high” part of the high-low action in the passing game.
When Nebraska throws downfield, Frost relies on switch releases and Saints/Spread concepts. Play-action is important. But Martinez was just 14-of-32 with two interceptions on throws that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. He completed 52.3% of his play-action throws for just 5.9 yards per attempt. To have a downfield attack, you need a downfield threat.
Manning averaged 20.6 yards a catch in two years at the JUCO level.
His Hudl film has some outstanding moments.
The very first highlight is him pancaking a defensive back and then immediately getting back up to go block someone else. At the 1:13 mark and the 2:06 mark, he makes the kind of over-the-top snags Nebraska wasn’t getting from its wide receivers a year ago.
He’s strong in his routes and balanced as a runner. His blocking ability and his willingness to do it (see: at 3:21 he opens up the sideline with his initial block, then sprints downfield to cut off a second guy who looked as if he was going to run down the ball-carrier) is exciting.
(Those are just freshman season highlights. His Hudl page doesn’t have video from his second season at Kilgore. I’m willing to step out onto the limb and say he got better after the first year.)
Manning keeps the ball tight to his body. He’s already north of 220 pounds. This isn’t freshman wideout Zavier Betts we’re talking about; Betts is tall, too, but he’s longer and leaner and he’s a freshman, Manning could be a Big Ten Newcomer of the Year-type player immediately.
Here’s a guy who, as a junior in high school, averaged 20.3 yards a catch and a touchdown every three catches. Since, he’s done the following:
- HS senior (2016): 16.5 yards a catch, a touchdown every five catches
- JUCO freshman (2018): 20.1 yards a catch, a touchdown every four catches
- JUCO sophomore (2019): 20.8 yards a catch, a touchdown every six catches
There’s enough there to say Manning is a big play-producing machine.
“There wasn’t a better guy in the country, in my opinion, for what we were looking for than (Manning),” Frost said in December. “He looks different than anybody I’ve ever coached and has tape to match. I’m really excited to get him. He’s got a little work to do yet before he gets to campus, but I think he has a chance to change our offense.”
Manning did the work. He shared on Twitter on Monday that he’d earned his Associate’s Degree from Kilgore. There was a thought he might not be on campus until July. That’ll now happen sooner.
Just looking purely at measurements, Frost has yet to coach a wideout that stood at least 6-foot-3 and weighed at least 220 pounds. Tight ends, sure, but from 2009-2015 at Oregon and then from 2016-17 at Central Florida, he never had a guy who matched Manning’s measurements.
“I think Omar looks like a Sunday guy right now and it's up to us as coaches to make sure we get him playing that way,” Frost said in February.
Sometimes the head coach can’t help himself and the good vibes go a little too far and the production doesn’t match. It is important to remember Manning is having to make the transition from junior college defensive schemes to Big Ten defensive schemes.
When he does get to campus, he’ll quarantine for 48 hours. When Manning is able to get on the field with his new teammates, he’ll have to develop a chemistry with Martinez quickly and display a level of comfort with the offenses calls and formations.
Technically speaking, it’s not “when” Manning produces yet, it’s still “if.” If Nebraska gets the guy it thinks it’s getting and if it gets that guy right away, Manning single-handedly changes the offense. Frost likes un-mirrored formations; Omar Manning and Wan’Dale Robinson running something like a fade-smash route combo is a dream scenario.