We’ve started this a little earlier than usual, but with the content wheel still churning even though football has stalled out, we thought it would be a good idea to just pull this up the calendar. Normally this series runs in the summertime, with the benefit of spring football to guide some of the thinking.
Not only have we not gotten to see spring football, the coaches haven’t gotten to conduct spring football. This is going to run once a week over the next several weeks, and hopefully it’s as therapeutic for the reader as it is for the writer. As has been the case in years past, we’re working from the bottom up to run through 10 of the most interesting Huskers heading into the 2020 football season.
No. 8: Chris Hickman
Between Jack Stoll and Travis Vokolek and Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal, could Chris Hickman have played at tight end? Sure. In terms of ceiling, he’s probably got the highest of the bunch, and it would behoove Scott Frost and his Huskers to get Hickman on the field whenever they can to start building toward that potential.
But, between the losses of Kanawai Noa and Mike Williams to graduation, the losses of Darien Chase and Jaevon McQuitty to transfer, and the big ball of unknown that is JD Spielman, could Nebraska use Chris Hickman at wideout? Absolutely.
That the Huskers looked at their spring ball situation at pass-catcher and fully committed to Hickman as a wideout—position change on huskers.com and everything—says a lot. Had the redshirt freshman from Omaha Burke simply “helped” over at wide receiver in the spring while scholarship bodies were few and far between, it would have signaled the staff was just fine letting him battle it out with a senior incumbent in Stoll and a junior who, physically, is very much Hickman’s superior in Vokolek and just see what happens.
To officially make the change, to say, ‘No, we’re using Chris as a wideout,” has to signal something the staff knows about the 6-foot-6 pass-catcher. Whether it’s that his potential as a mismatching wideout is greater than as a tight end, whether it’s that they’ve got a star already at tight end and they don’t want a talent like Hickman riding the bench, or whether it’s that they just don’t feel good about wideout, all roads lead to one easy conclusion:
Hickman has a massive opportunity in front of him.
Recovery from a high school injury heading into his first spring cost Hickman a period of strength training. His position coach, Sean Beckton, said the youngster’s biggest challenge was getting his body ready; Hickman’s recruiting profile had him listed at 195 heading into his freshman year on campus. Beckton was fine with Hickman’s understanding of the game, but more concerned about his frame.
It took a matter of months for that feeling to flip entirely.
“I’m not concerned with him being able to get out there and perform,” Beckton said on the Wednesday before Nebraska’s season-opener. “What he’s shown us as a staff through training camp, he deserves to be on the football field in the first game. Obviously, he is limited a little bit in terms of his physique and weight but he’s tenacious. He understands the game plan so far. We have a couple more days to hone it up for him.”
Deserve is a strong choice of word. When the media wants to see a certain player on the field early and often, we’ll cite he looks “ready” to help Nebraska, or ready enough to fill a gap. In reality, if that kid isn’t on the field, it might not have anything to do with his physical readiness, but everything to do with whether he’s earned an opportunity yet or not. Hickman “deserving” playing time right off the bat feels like one of the better compliments a coach can give a new player.
“He’s really a football junkie,” Beckton said. “He’s a kid that really pays attention. He sits in the back in the tight end room but if you check his notebook it’s filled with information. If there is something shady that he doesn’t quite understand, he will make sure to get the exact answer for it. You can see it in his notebook. I check his notebook. He is very detailed with it.”
His speed would have served as a matchup problem while lining up at tight end. That might not always be the case as a perimeter receiver, but his sheer size might help swing things his way still in those battles.
Hickman appeared on offense three times last season—at Purdue, at Maryland, and home against Iowa. (His debut against Northwestern featured special teams work exclusively.) Against Purdue, Nebraska put him in a split backfield and had him do a little of everything. After the game, Frost said he was consistently “one of our best, if not our best” perimeter blockers on the team.
“He will fight you every single play,” Beckton said. “Yesterday, he ran downfield and drove a defensive back 10 yards back. Coach Frost looked at me and said, ‘This kid’s going to be all right.’ I said, ‘Yes, I know.’”
New offensive coordinator Matt Lubick is from the same Chip Kelly school of thought as Scott Frost, and one of their offensive tenets is perimeter blocking can turn a good team into a great team. Lubick is no doubt happy to have Hickman’s no-holds-barred attitude when it comes to point-of-attack contact.
What exactly all this translates into on the field in the fall is anyone’s guess right now. Before the opener in 2019, Beckton said there were no reservations about Hickman’s grasp of the offense and that he expected to play him early, then we saw Hickman but one time before November rolled around.
This will also be the second spring period Hickman will have missed out on in as many years. What kind of impact does that have on a kid who was making a move from one spot to another?
Still, the hybrid pass-catcher feels like one of the higher-potential players on the entire roster. Noah Fant had 30 catches for 11 scores and nearly 500 yards as a sophomore big-play threat. (There was no way to go through this and not bring up Fant’s name, sorry.) Hickman could very well possess the same kind of explosive playmaking ability thanks to his natural gifts. Can he take that next step forward in fall camp and carve out a role for himself in the passing game?
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.