The hair style looked the part. Business in front, party in the back.
But as Nate Boerkircher chatted with the media inside Memorial Stadium on Wednesday after the team’s 11th practice of the spring, it became clear that Nebraska’s walk-on tight end from small-town Nebraska isn’t earning praise from his coaches because of his choice of haircut.
The Aurora native is earning it because he deserves it.
Nebraska’s tight end room has been ravaged by injury this spring. The coaching staff is playing it safe with starter Travis Vokolek, holding him out of contact drills as he rehabs offseason shoulder surgery. The sixth-year player is expected back for fall practice.
But Thomas Fidone II, the Huskers’ prized recruit from the 2021 class, suffered an injury that will keep him out for an unknown amount of time. Chis Hickman and Chancellor Brewington aren’t practicing either as both are on the mend.
That means the second-year scholarship tight ends—James Carnie and AJ Rollins—who didn’t think they’d be getting reps with the first-team offense before the spring are now getting them.
But so is that walk-on from Aurora, Boerkircher. He doesn’t have a scholarship, but he’s the one who’s gotten shoutouts from the head man and his position coach.
“We need some of those guys to step up obviously,” Scott Frost said of the young tight ends last week. “James and AJ and Boerkircher, we’ll probably highlight Bork right now, he’s doing a really good job. And we need some guys to step up at that spot. So those guys are certainly getting reps with Travis out for the spring, and they need them and they’re taking advantage of them.”
It didn’t take long for Sean Beckton, Nebraska’s tight ends coach, to mention the former Aurora Husky on Wednesday, too.
“First guy I’m really proud in how hard he’s worked, Nate Boerkircher. He’s been very detailed since the offseason,” Beckton said. “He’s worked really hard in the weight room and he’s really improved in all facets. He’s become a run blocker. He absorbs the ball—I don’t think he’s had a drop all spring, he’s made tough plays. So I’m really excited about what he’s done thus far.”
Last season, Boerkircher played in three games—Fordham, Buffalo and Northwestern—and hauled in two catches for 14 yards. The three games was by design, Beckton said, because the plan was to use a redshirt on the young athlete.
“Because I saw the potential in him, give us a longer shelf life with him here,” Beckton said. “He’s really, really matured with his body also. He’s added weight, up over 235 (pounds) now and has actually increased his speed. So we’re really excited about him coming along.”
When Boerkircher first got to campus, he was weighing around 210 or 215 pounds. This spring he’s around 230 pounds at 6-foot-4, with the goal being 240 or 250 down the road.
“I got a little ways to go. Gotta keep eating,” Boerkircher said.
Like all the tight ends have, Boerkircher learned from Austin Allen, a fellow Aurora alum who went on to set tight end records at Nebraska last year and might be selected in the upcoming NFL Draft. Allen was a senior at Aurora when Boerkircher was a freshman. Seniors aren’t usually best buds with freshmen on the high school football team, but that changed when Boerkircher got to Lincoln. The two former Huskies became good friends while they were in the same room.
“Austin Allen was a great leader. From the same hometown, same school, went to high school together,” Boerkircher said. “Right when I got here he took me under his wing, and he really helped me grow as a player.”
Boerkircher, whose brother, Ian, is an offensive lineman on the team, recognizes the opportunity that’s in front of him and the other young tight ends. Last season at Pittsburgh, new Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple used his tight ends, Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew, in creative ways. Krull, a senior, caught 38 passes for 451 yards and six touchdowns while Bartholomew, a true freshman, added 27 catches for 317 yards and four scores.
Here’s an example of what Whipple did with Bartholomew, who lined up next to quarterback Kenny Pickett as an H-back in an unbalanced pistol look and took a screen pass for a touchdown against Duke:
Here’s a similar unbalanced look pre-snap, but it’s a play-action pass to Bartholomew, who bluffs like he’s going to block a split-zone run, but leaks out to the flat for a touchdown:
With Fidone likely out for the near future, that No. 2 tight end spot behind Vokolek will be a tightly-contested race. Boerkircher is a strong candidate to help fill that role.
“I think a lot of us have a chance to capitalize on getting more reps and it’s a great way to build confidence through experience,” Boerkircher said, “and I think it’s important for some of our group to get that confidence.”
Playing in a Whipple offense means different run schemes and passing concepts. While Boerkircher has improved his strength, which helps with run blocking, he’s always been able to run routes and be a pass catcher. As a high school junior in 2018, he caught two touchdowns for an Aurora team that went undefeated and won the Class C-1 state title. That was the team quarterbacked by current South Dakota State Jackrabbit basketball player Baylor Scheierman, who threw for 59 touchdowns and 3,924 yards. The season after that, Boerkircher caught three touchdowns while earning C-1 all-state honors.
Playing in an offense that isn’t afraid to throw the ball won’t be a new thing for Boerkircher, who said the offense is learning new run and pass schemes.
“He’s a guru, he’s a smart guy,” Boerkircher said of Whipple. “We’ve had to mix in some new things and learn some new things. It’s been great to kind of dive into his style and playbook and learn that way of playing.”
For the last two years, Boerkircher was being the quiet one in the tight end room. Walk-ons aren’t usually the ones you’d expect to speak up, after all. He spent those years taking everything in while watching the veterans like Allen and Vokolek.
But now, after injuries have opened the door for others like him, Boerkircher doesn’t want to act like a quiet walk-on anymore. He’s rotating in with the first-team offense now, catching passes from quarterbacks like Casey Thompson, the Texas transfer who threw five touchdowns against Oklahoma last year.
“I’m kind of trying to just get out of the young-guy mentality and kind of grow into more of a leader and helper for my teammates,” Boerkircher said.
Boerkircher doesn’t have a scholarship right now, but he’s being talked about like a player who does. He’s not the tall and skinny former Husky anymore. The third-year player now looks the part, all the way up to the haircut. Business in front, party in back.