As part of our Year in Review series we're taking a close look at why the 2019 Nebraska football season went the way it did. The series originally appeared in the December issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.
Nebraska didn’t look anything like what many expected a Scott Frost offense to be this season. The run game was inconsistent and the passing attack was erratic. The Huskers moved the ball plenty at times but stalled out in the red zone.
So what was the problem? Well, the short answer is “everything.” There wasn’t a single part of Nebraska’s offense that consistently performed at a high level. In football, the quarterback gets the majority of the credit when things go well and most of the blame when things go poorly. There was a lot of blame for Adrian Martinez this year, and he certainly deserved some of it.
However, it’s hard to look good as a quarterback when you’re not getting much help. The offensive line showed some progress down the stretch of the season, but the wide receivers were another story.
Nebraska had some big shoes to fill with the departure of Stanley Morgan Jr. following his 1,000-yard senior season, and after 12 games without him it’s clear that no one was up to the task.
Any discussion about Nebraska’s wide receivers has to start with JD Spielman. As a sophomore playing alongside Morgan, Spielman put up 818 yards and eight touchdowns on 66 receptions in 10 games. That’s 81.8 yards on 6.6 receptions per game, 12.4 yards per catch. Spielman did most of his damage from the slot while Morgan played out wide.
This season, Spielman’s role evolved; with other options to play in the slot and no one emerging to fill Morgan’s shoes outside, he moved around a lot more. Spielman grew into more of a dynamic field stretcher, but the tradeoff was he also became less of a target magnet.
As a junior, he managed to play in all 12 games, catching 49 passes for 898 yards and four scores. His per-game averages were down to 4.1 receptions for 74.8 yards, but he also was good for 18.3 yards per catch.
Spielman was much more of a deep threat this season, but he was also much less consistent, often disappearing completely for long stretches of games. In 2018, he caught five or more passes in eight of his 10 games and also topped 60 yards receiving eight times with highs of 209 yards on nine catches and 135 yards on 10 receptions. In 2019, he only reached the five-catch mark five times in 12 games and topped 60 yards seven times. His season-high in receptions was seven. However, he did top 100 yards four times, with games of 160, 123, 112 and 104 yards.
Defenses were able to pay Spielman a lot more attention without having to account for a guy like Morgan. However, one other receiver did emerge as a legitimate threat.
Freshman Wan’Dale Robinson arrived in Lincoln with plenty of hype, which only intensified during spring ball and fall camp. When he finally took the field, he proved the hype was justified. When he wasn’t in the backfield, he was usually operating out of the slot as Nebraska tried to get him the ball in space as much as possible.
As a true freshman, Robinson caught 40 passes for 453 yards (11.3 yards per reception), and two touchdowns. He caught three or more balls in seven of his 10 games with a high of eight. He topped out at 123 yards on seven receptions against Northwestern. Before Robinson went down with an injury that cost him two games and most of a third, he had actually drawn two more targets than Spielman (57 to 55). Robinson’s ability to cut on a dime and make defenders look silly is what makes him special, but he also showed some real toughness, taking big hit after big hit and bouncing back up off the turf every time.
Things got dicey when you looked beyond those two, however. Together, Spielman and Robinson accounted for 1,351 of the 1,842 yards (73.3%), 89 of the 125 receptions (71.2%) and 136 of the 209 targets (65.1%) produced by Nebraska’s wide receivers.
The only other receiver with more than 12 targets (targets, not receptions) was grad transfer Kanawai Noa. In 37 career games at California, Noa caught 96 passes for 1,257 yard and six touchdowns. At Nebraska, he was third on the team with 245 receiving yards and he found the end zone twice. The native of Honolulu, Hawaii, was a strong blocker but never quite got on the same page with Martinez. He caught just 17 of his 41 targets despite starting nine of the 10 games in which he played. Noa suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to Nebraska’s final two games and wasn’t even part of the team’s senior-day festivities.
Senior Mike Williams and redshirt sophomore walk-on Kade Warner combined for 210 yards while catching 13 of their 21 targets. Nebraska had four other receivers total six receptions on 11 targets. One of those was a senior (Jaron Woodyard) and another entered the transfer portal midseason (Miles Jones).
Nebraska’s plan to redshirt most of its 2019 recruiting class impacted the wide receiver room beyond Robinson as Darien Chase played in four games, Jamie Nance played in one and Demariyon Houston never saw the field.
There were certainly plays where wide receivers got open down the field and Martinez missed them, but more often they just weren’t open. Something offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Troy Walters talked about throughout the season is the receivers needing to be in the right place at the right time.
“Our job as receivers is when the quarterback hits his third step, fifth step, whatever it is, we have to create an accurate picture for him,” Walters said late in the season. “There can’t be any gray area. We’ve got to be where we’re supposed to be so (Martinez) has confidence. We’re getting there . . . It comes down to running with speed, running fast, full-speed with technique and detail and make sure that we give the quarterback a clean picture.”
Spielman (5-foot-9), Robinson (5-foot-10), Noa (6-foot) and Williams (5-foot-10) all played in at least 10 games this season while Warner (6-foot-1) was limited to seven by injury. That was the team’s core group of receivers. Off the bench, Nance, Houston, Woodyard, Chase and sophomore Jaevon McQuitty are all listed at 6-foot-1 or shorter. There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in terms of body types in that room this season and the lack of a big-bodied receiver who could win 50-50 balls likely had a lot to do with Nebraska’s struggles in the red zone.
Nebraska landed a pair of the bigger-bodied receivers it needed in the 2020 recruiting class as junior college transfer Omar Manning (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and Bellevue West product Zavier Betts (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) both signed during he early signing period, and the infusion of talent and size should make a difference.
But no matter who is in that room, the Huskers will need more in 2020. The 2017 Central Florida Knights had three receivers and the Duck-R with more than 25 catches apiece. Nebraska will need the same kind of production if it wants to look more like a Frost team in 2020.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.