The sidelines outside the Hawks Championship Center were a bit more crowded than normal for Wednesday’s football practice. In addition to various media members (for the first 25 minutes) and team staffers, a small collection of NFL scouts observed the action.
When the Huskers split into their various position groups, the scouts gravitated toward the tight ends with Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek front and center.
“The scouts should be looking at those guys,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “I think my last year at Oregon we had three tight ends that all went to the NFL and these are the best two that I’ve ever been around from a consistency, leadership and just the way they practice. Coach Beckton’s done a great job with them. They’re making plays.
“We ask a lot from our tight ends because they have to be point of attack in the run game but we also split them out as wide receivers and they have to be able to make plays in the passing game. So it’s a lot on them mentally and physically and they’ve done great.”
Allen is Nebraska’s leading returning receiver, recording 18 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown last season. Vokolek added nine receptions for 91 yards. The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Austin and 6-foot-6, 260-pound Vokolek figure to be a big part of Nebraska’s passing attack in 2021.
“Those guys have opportunities to showcase their abilities,” Beckton said. “Coach Lubick and Coach Frost have basically stepped up on the offensive end and re-energized the tight ends, designed some plays to get those guys the ball more, changed a little bit of the reads for the quarterbacks so it’s more of a first read for those guys on certain plays. They’re pumped about it. They’re seeing a lot of balls coming their way. [Chris] Hickman had a 70-yard touchdown down the seam yesterday. Travis and Austin have been catching the ball extremely well and young Nate Boerkircher has done a tremendous job for us also, really, really picking up on things and catching the ball.”
Getting the tight ends more involved isn’t just something the coaches are talking about. The shift is already paying dividends on the field in practice.
“We keep a drop count every single day,” Beckton said. “We’ve never had this many catches this quick in a camp, so that kind of tells you where we are with the tight ends, getting those guys the ball.”
The room’s depth took a hit when highly-touted freshman Thomas Fidone II went down with an injury during spring ball, but Hickman is back with Beckton after bouncing around between tight end and wide receiver his first couple of seasons on campus and Beckton is excited about working with him again.
“When he first got here, I was the one that was in his home recruiting him,” Beckton said. “He’s back with me, he’s back home. We’re obviously trying to work on putting on a little bit more weight for him. But he’s doing a tremendous job. Every single day he’s getting better. We’re trying to really, really detail some of his landmarks as far as blocking, but he’s been a very pleasant surprise for us and he’s gained the confidence of everybody on the team.”
Scoring in the red zone has been a major focus for the Huskers this offseason, so much so that Beckton said they’ve move up the installation period for red zone offense so they have more time to work on it. The tight ends will feature prominently in that.
“Down in the red zone, Coach Lubick and myself have really, really put in a lot of time watching a lot of NFL tape,” Beckton said. “Obviously last year with the tight ends, we used them more than we ever have. We’re going to accelerate that a little bit more. There are some packages coming that we are going to introduce probably at the end of this week … When you get down to the red zone, your bigger targets — we’ve got bigger receivers and we’ve got bigger tight ends — obviously we want to get those guys the ball more and the thing about it down in the red zone is everything’s close so ball placement is important. That’s where Adrian Martinez and the quarterbacks — I tell the tight ends and the receivers ‘You’re always open down there. The quarterback will give you the ball and you just have to go make a play.’”
In addition to playing a larger role in the passing attack, Allen and Vokolek have also emerged as leaders not only in their own room, but for the offense as a whole. Lubick said the way they lead by example and how hard they practice is contagious.
“We have the leadership on our team we haven’t had here for a while, really since we’ve been here as a staff,” Beckton said. “Those guys are demanding we go out and play hard. If you do something wrong, do it 100 miles an hour, and it’s resonating to the rest of the team. We’re excited about that and it’s led by Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek. Those guys have stepped up, and Cam Jurgens on the offensive side.”
Wednesday won’t be the last time Allen and Vokolek have NFL eyes on them. The three tight ends during Lubick’s last year at Oregon — Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Jacob Breeland — all went undrafted, but they’re all still in the league. If this season goes according to plan, the veteran Husker tight ends should have a chance carve out professional careers of their own.