In Nebraska’s win over North Dakota on Saturday, the wide receivers weren’t the ones making most of the major plays.
Running back Anthony Grant stole the show, rushing for 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while backup Ajay Allen added over 50 yards and a score as well. Both of Casey Thompson’s passing touchdowns were caught by tight ends.
However, even without the standout statlines, the wide receivers came away with positives.
According to Thompson, the most important one was that the receivers didn’t drop any passes. That’s a step up from last week, where they had multiple drops against Northwestern, including one which ended up in the hands of a Wildcat defender for a game-sealing interception. The volume may play a part in that — Thompson threw twice as many passes last week — but it’s a positive nonetheless.
The wide receivers still didn’t completely lack big plays either. With the Huskers up a touchdown in the fourth quarter in a third-and-long at their own 7-yard line, Trey Palmer made a 31-yard catch to keep an eventual scoring drive alive. He had a 35-yard grab in the third quarter, while Marcus Washington and Alante Brown both had gains of over 20 yards on the team’s first drive of the game.
Through two weeks, Palmer has 12 catches for 150 yards, leading the team in both categories.
“Trey gets open because, like I said, our scheme, first and foremost, we can scheme him open,” Thompson said. “But Trey is just a really good player and he’s very fast. He’s had a lot of good plays for us down the field. Even just throwing him a short bubble pass, he can go 10, 15 yards.”
Even with his strong start to the year, his teammates are looking for him to keep improving. Thompson said he wants to see even more catches and effort from him. Palmer has his own areas he wants to work on, his route-running and stamina in particular.
“I kind of get tired fast and don’t run routes full speed,” Palmer said. “But I just gotta build my stamina.”
Right now, Palmer said he’s able to go five or six plays in a row without being tired. He wants to get that number up to 10. When he’s able to go full speed, he’s confident he can use his speed to get open against anyone.
The snap counts line up with Palmer’s assessment. He hasn’t led his position in snaps in either of the first two weeks, and played 28 of the team’s 65 offensive snaps last Saturday. That was third on the team, behind Marcus Washington (40 snaps) and Alante Brown (38).
The remedy for that is Nebraska’s depth at the position. The Huskers haven’t had two wide receivers to consistently rely on since 2019, when JD Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson topped the depth chart. Nebraska relied on Robinson alone in 2020 and Samori Touré in 2021, although it was less intense last year. Omar Manning, the team’s second-most productive receiver in 2021, averaged 34.5 yards per game, over 10 yards behind Robinson’s average receiving yards in 2019.
While Palmer currently stands ahead significantly, there’s reason to believe the rest of the room could be a consistent threat. Isaiah Gardner-Castaneda had 120 yards in the season opener, although he didn’t have a target against North Dakota. Marcus Washington and Alante Brown are both starters who have recorded multiple catches in both of the first two games.
Thompson also is willing to spread the ball around. In both of the first two games, four wide receivers have gotten at least three targets. He’s not looking for a specific receiver from play to play, more just taking what the defense gives him.
“I’m usually just going through my reads and progressions,” he said. “There’s very few plays in a game where you have multiple guys that are open. Sometimes depending on the coverage they roll to there’s multiple guys that can get the ball. I usually go to the first read and my first instinct. If it’s a man coverage and if it’s a one-on-one battle I may pre-snap kind of predetermine best matchup, best skillset depending on route and leverage. I usually just base it on coverage and the matchup.”
Thompson said that at times, multiple wide receivers will come up to him after a play and tell him they were open. The truth of those statements can vary, but the quarterback just believes moving the ball is the most important.
He and the rest of the offense will continue to push the rest of the receivers at practice. The standard for Palmer is the same as the standard for the rest of the group in practice — chasing perfection.
“We’re pushing everybody to try to be perfect on every rep at practice because we know in the game, mistakes are going to happen and the defense is gonna make some plays,” Thompson said. “We’re pushing Trey and all these guys to run perfect routes, you know, get to the exact route depth and read the coverages and convert the routes the way they’re supposed to be ran.”