Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

AJ Rollins Looking to Take Advantage of Increased Practice Reps this Spring

March 30, 2022

Midway through spring ball, it would probably take less time for Sean Beckton to list the healthy players in his room than it would to run through all the injured tight ends. 

One of the players still standing is redshirt freshman AJ Rollins, and he’s doing what he can to take advantage of the unexpected increase in practice reps.

“Coach Beck always told me to be ready to play and expected me to show up,” Rollins said. “This spring ball, he wanted me to step up and just take another step in my game. So I’d say it’s kind of unexpected but at the same time I was ready for it and with everybody being out I just had to step up and just go to make plays and just keep doing what I’m doing.”

Travis Vokolek, Chris Hickman, Thomas Fidone and Chancellor Brewington have all been out, and James Carnie suffered a minor injury as well. That leaves Rollins as the only healthy scholarship tight end in the room.

“I get an opportunity to showcase my abilities and really just get better,” Rollins said. “I’ve been taking a lot of reps and they’ve just been making me better. Nate Boerkircher, I’ve been working with him and he set the standard. So every day, I’m just trying to do what he does or even better and just keep going up the chart.”

Boerkicher, the third-year redshirt freshman walk-on from Aurora, saw the field a bit last season and has earned praise from Beckton for the progress he’s made as well. Though Vokolek hasn’t been going through full practices, he’s still been there as a resource for the young tight ends.

“It’s crazy because Travis does some drills, but he’s not really practicing and you can still feel his presence and he’s a big factor,” Rollins said. “He’s always shaking my hand, telling me what I need to do, and when I make mistakes, Travis is never yelling at me; he just explains it to me. So it’s been good having him there.”

Rollins logged four snaps between two games as a true freshman, maintaining his redshirt. Playing behind a couple of veterans in Austin Allen and Vokolek with a couple of walk-ons who climbed the depth chart in Brewington and Boerkircher, the path to playing time was going to be a difficult one for Rollins in 2021, and he knew it. There are far fewer obstacles this season.

“Last year when I was a freshman, I’d just kind of coast; I didn’t really have to take many reps with the ones so I wasn’t really getting game reps going against the one defense,” Rollins said. “So I’d say right now the game is just faster. I’m seeing a lot of reps and learning the offense more. I’d just say I’m getting better at a faster rate.” 

The learning curve has been steep for Rollins in part because of his background. He was a multi-sport athlete at Creighton Prep who spent his springs and summers throughout high school playing grassroots basketball instead of focusing on the gridiron. He played on both sides of the ball at Prep as well. Now, it’s all about football — and specifically tight end.

“I’m just learning at a super high rate,” Rollins said. “I feel myself getting better at a super high rate and it’s just crazy because right now, usually I’d be playing AAU basketball, focusing on basketball. Right now I can just be on my iPad looking at film and just working on routes or something, catching some balls with the quarterbacks. So I feel like that’s a good thing for me, a high point. So I’ve been able to focus in on football mainly and it’s been really good.”

Rollins said the strength coaches were on him to hit the weights hard during the offseason to keep adding strength, and improving his blocking has been a major emphasis.

“At first I was struggling but today I had a really good day of blocking,” Rollins said. “I’m coming off the ball more and my hips were bad at the beginning throughout my freshman year. I’ve been stretching; Coach Beck makes me stretch every day, every night. So I’ve been stretching, my hips are getting better, I’ve come off the ball a lot harder.” 

Rollins said his high school coaches introduced some of the blocking fundamentals stuff — like proper hand placement — to him in high school, but it wasn’t as much of an emphasis as it is now at Nebraska.

“I never really paid attention to it because I could just do the minimum to get away with it in high school where in college, I actually had to work on that,” Rollins said. “So Coach Beckton really harps on me blocking and using my hips so it’s been a big focus for me.”

Beckton has been coaching Rollins hard — he was doing so even before he made it to campus but it’s ramped up since he’s officially joined the team — and the 6-foot-6, 230-pound tight end has embraced it.

“At first, I wasn’t playing fast enough, so he was on me about that,” Rollins said. “I had to play faster. Honestly, the beginning half of spring, I wasn’t playing really good. I was playing too slow, just was out of it. But he was on me and he called me right before spring break telling me I have to step up. So I came out of spring break with the mentality that I have to get going and I’ve been playing really good ever since.”

Beckton noticed the difference and spoke highly of Rollins’ efforts on Wednesday.

“AJ Rollins probably had his best day today at practice,” Beckton said. “He’s always been a physical kid. I’m getting him to learn how to play a little bit more as a receiver. He’s really starting to put things together. He came in really early this morning, ‘Coach, what do we have that’s new?’ That’s what it’s going to take for him to continue to progress forward.”

Every player heads into a season hoping to play. Getting on the field has always been the goal for Rollins. However, that goal has never felt more attainable to him than now after what he’s experience this spring.

“My goals really never changed, but my eyes began to open,” Rollins said. “I had the goal of playing already but I still wasn’t playing my best, so I’m like ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’ With seeing them go down I still have the same goals, but it opened my vision about being able to see like, ‘I can really do this now,’ and I had the chance. 

“So right now I’m trying to take the chance that I have and just go with it.”

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