A former Nebraska linebacker once told me the adjustment period from high school ball to college was tougher than the jump from college football to the NFL. You can be the best player for miles when you’re playing high school ball and then show up to college and not even be the best player in your dorm room.
Indeed, that reality hits most freshmen at one point or another. For mid-year enrollees, it can be stark.
For Thomas Fidone, a 4-star tight end signee from the 2021 crop and one of Nebraska’s most prized offseason additions, his position coach wanted to get that jolt over with early.
“He wanted to step out there day one and be the best tight end on the team, and I had to humble him early on,” said Sean Beckton on Wednesday.
Austin Allen is an NFL-caliber tight end, Beckton said. He wants to be a captain, and figures to be Nebraska’s day one starter. The Huskers remain high on Travis Vokolek as a utility player. He has played in 27 games in the three years he has been eligible.
Nebraska wants Fidone to know he won’t be given a spot without work.
“We’ve got to stack practices, we’ve got to stack reps on top of each other in order for him to be great. He’s definitely moving in that direction,” Beckton said. “It took him a little while to understand ‘I gotta step back and I’ve got to sit here and learn from Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek.’”
One player the coach credited with helping ease the transition is third-year tight end Chris Hickman (he was moved back to tight end with Kurt Rafdal’s transfer). Beckton says Hickman has “done a great job” helping Fidone to understand the coach’s teaching style.
“When I’m getting on you and yelling at you, it’s not because I don’t like you, it’s because I’m trying to get something out of you,” Beckton said. “Once he figured out that, me constantly coaching him on every single rep, it’s really helped him progress.”
To the point where Wednesday, during a team scrimmage, Beckton felt Fidone had a breakthrough moment.
“Today was the best practice he’s had since he’s been here,” Beckton said. “It’s been a step-by-step process with him. He’s come in to work as soon as he got here. We’ve given him a lot of information and he’s done an unbelievable job.”
Talent shines through when you’ve got it, and from a pass-catching standpoint, Fidone has it in spades. Coaches are working with him on technique, footwork, hand placement, things like that, but physicality and confidence aren’t an issue.
It’s also not far-fetched to expect a significant enough role for the first-year player from Iowa right away. Tight ends in the Husker offense drew targets on 22% of all passes last season compared to 16% in 2019. The staff wants that position to be a key part of the offensive attack.
Allen did well to establish himself as the top guy when Jack Stoll went down early with an injury, but none of the numbers jumped off the page. Allen and Vokolek combined to catch 27 of their 43 targets for 327 yards and one touchdown.
Jordan Akins, for instance, had 32 catches for 515 yards in his final season at Central Florida within the Scott Frost offense.
Though Allen may be tough to supplant, Fidone could see plenty of chances to make plays this fall if he keeps developing at the pace he’s currently on. Nebraska is being careful not to place too high of expectations on his plate, but they’re no doubt pleased with the youngster.
“Fidone has really, really improved since day one, and he’s only going to get better from here,” Beckton said. “Sky’s the limit for him. He caught maybe four or five passes today and really had a really good scrimmage. He’s starting to understand the techniques and how to practice on a college level.
“I’m really, really proud of where he’s come. We’ve just got to keep pressing him, but he’s going to help this football team.”