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After Near Two-Year Wait, Travis Vokolek Hoping to Help Huskers

October 22, 2020

For his career, Travis Vokolek has 17 catches for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Not much to go on, but then again Vokolek didn’t have much to work with in the Rutgers offense. In his two years in East Rutherford, Vokolek caught balls from Artur Sitkowski and Giovanni Rescigno.

Sitkowski’s numbers in 2018, when Vokolek had all but one of his catches: 134-for-273 (49.1%), 1,158 yards (4.2 per attempt), and four touchdowns against 18 picks.

But Nebraska saw a talented pass-catcher in Vokolek even when the production seemed slight. At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, the Missouri native is the kind of big-bodied threat coach Scott Frost is looking for. He was raw as a blocker, but they could mold him there.

And, really, Vokolek’s last college game served as the best indicator of what he was bringing over to Lincoln: he caught four balls for a career-best 69 yards and a score.

When he takes the field Saturday against the fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, it’ll mark 23 months to the day since that game. Vokolek sat out the 2019 season after transferring. It’s been a long wait. During it, though, he committed himself to the scout team. Don’t let the time go to waste, he though.

“When I first got here, knowing I was going to have to sit out, one of my goals was to really learn a lot over that year and not waste that year down on the scout team,” he said. “So I was still doing the drills, footwork and stuff, really working on blocking and then route running as well.”

On Fridays, Vokolek was with the offense. On Saturdays, he could only watch and try to apply teachings to what he was seeing. For what it’s worth, he was named the scout team offensive MVP last season.

“We’re expecting him to come in and be a dominant force in the run game and be a dominant force in the passing game,” tight end coach Sean Beckton said earlier this month.

Back in the spring, Beckton said he thought Vokolek would be a guy Husker fans would hear from early and often in-season. That Vokolek is in a position as a newcomer to crack the rotation in a room that features two constants at the position for Nebraska in recent years—senior Jack Stoll and junior Austin Allen—is a testament to his work.

When he arrived in Lincoln, Beckton has said, Vokolek worked exclusively on the right side of formations. A right-handed stance was all he was comfortable with. They worked him on the left to get him comfortable, and they taught him their brand of blocking—striking and driving at the proper landmark. “Night and day” was the way Beckton described his progress months ago.

Now, Vokolek seems poised for a game day role.

“When he came in, he was obviously an unbelievable athlete,” Stoll said. “I think the biggest thing he’s grown on is technique. His technique’s gotten a lot better since he’s been here.”

The tight end room watched cut-ups of various NFL stars this offseason. Beckton wanted to show that what they’re working on now—how your route changes against single-high or two-high, etc.—will take them to the next level.

The hope is the position as a whole is more involved in the offense in 2020.

Even if it’s just in the red zone, Nebraska stands to benefit. The Huskers scored touchdowns on only 52.9% (100th nationally) of drives that reached the opponent’s 20. Not great. Asked what kind of factor the tight end room can be this season, Vokolek cracked a smile before saying, “Hopefully a lot. I hope we’re a big factor.”

The word out of fall camp is that Nebraska’s commitment to the tight end is more than just a press conference talking point.

“I think specifically this year in receiving, you can see us going out there and making more plays,” Stoll said. “We’re getting the ball a lot more.

“I think Coach (Matt) Lubick has done a great job of coming up with route schemes to help not only the tight ends but everyone else get the ball and put us in the best situations to win. That’s part of it. I think the other part is we’re just going out there and making more plays because we’re a little more detailed on some of our routes, running at full-speed more of the time. It’s some of the smaller details like that that really end up turning what could be a throw to the flat for 3 yards into a 15-yard gain because we ended up coming out of our break a little bit faster.”

With Lubick now on board as the team’s new offensive coordinator, Beckton says he’s tweaked a few things in the passing department. “We’re running a lot of the same plays that Coach Frost had and always has envisioned, but we’re getting to them in a lot of different ways,” he said. Frost has base concepts upon which everything else is built. Lubick has created “deviations” off those.

“Guys have earned Coach Lubick and Coach Frost’s trust with how well those guys have worked and performed throughout this time period,” Beckton said. “(Lubick is) making sure we have tight end targets, and we’ve changed some things up where the read goes first to the tight end as opposed to a situation where maybe he was a last outlet.”

This is what Lubick has done, though.

At Oregon, from 2013-15 Lubick had the title of passing game coordinator but Frost was the offensive coordinator. The Ducks got 12.5% of their receptions from tight ends in 2013, then 12.9% the following year, then 8.9% the following year.

In 2016, after Frost left to take the head coaching gig at UCF and Lubick was promoted to offensive coordinator, the percentage of receptions to tight ends rose to 27.6% (71 total receptions). Two seniors, Pharaoh Brown and Johnny Bundt caught a combined 56 balls for 760 yards and nine scores.

In his first year at Washington, Lubick again saw two tight ends catch at least 20 balls. The overall percentage of receptions going to those guys was at 21.7% in 2017 and then 18.9% in 2018.

Nebraska hasn’t had a pair of tight ends each catch 20 passes in the same season since Kyler Reed and Mike McNeil did it in 2010. In two seasons under Frost, tight ends have gotten 10.9% (2018) and 17.5% (2019) of all receptions.

Whatever configuration Nebraska wants to use on offense, the fact of the matter is that it has a relatively green wideout group and an experienced tight end group. Between Vokolek, Stoll, Allen, and junior Kurt Rafdal, the tight ends have a combined 97 games worth of knowledge to draw from.

Stoll has played in every game each of the last three years. Allen has played in every game in each of his last two. Vokolek saw the field 19 times in two seasons with Rutgers.

“We’ve got high expectations in that group,” Vokolek said. We’re a veteran room with a lot of older guys out there. We’re trying to be the leaders on the field. We’re gonna use our tight ends pretty significantly and we’re gonna go out there and make plays.”

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