Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Zavier Betts makes a catch during football practice
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Fall Camp has Brought Unbridled Optimism for What the Nebraska Passing Game Can Be

August 08, 2021

It’s hard not to get excited when listening to Nebraska talk about its passing game these days. 

Then you turn on a college football podcast with more of a wide-angle national view than a narrow local lens and that optimism gets doused with just the coldest of cold water. I was listening to one the other day—which shall remain nameless because I like the show and no national talk show can really be expected to fully understand the nuances of all 130 teams—and that exact thing happened.

“They just couldn’t generate any big plays,” one of the two hosts said of the Huskers’ 2020 season. “There was no pop in that offense, and it really ended up coming back to bite ‘em.” Fair. The other co-host followed up later by adding “the problem is there’s no obvious even-semi dudes on this offense.”

The question that’s been on my mind all week: what’s a reasonable place to set the bar? Nebraska only threw for 177 yards a game last year. Factoring sacks into the passing totals, the offense got less than 6 yards per drop back. 

That’s tough. 

And from an outsider’s perspective, the only player who moved the needle, Wan’Dale Robinson, transferred to Kentucky, a worse passing attack both by yards per game and per play. Nebraska’s leading returning pass-catcher had 236 yards on 18 receptions last season. 

While I didn’t necessarily agree with the “no even-semi dudes” comment, I can’t really argue Nebraska has any receivers who have proven worthy of being known to a national audience. 

Still…

“Adrian (Martinez) is night and day,” said tight ends coach Sean Beckton this week. 

After a strong spring, Nebraska’s fourth-year quarterback has opened up fall camp with the same kind of fervor. He’s in good shape and he’s slinging it well. The decision-making seems to be impressing everyone, as is the arm.

“He’s playing at the highest level I’ve ever seen,” Beckton went on to say. “He went to another level (from the spring). A whole other level. We’re excited about it because that’s the Adrian Martinez we’ve been wanting to see and he’s really, really in a good spot right here. And everybody across the board knows it, and they’re following him.”

Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but Martinez has no doubt been lights out this offseason, and he’s just the starting point for offensive optimism. This is where I point out the quarterback tends to look really good when he’s surrounded by really good skill players. 

Omar Manning has been available enough to the offense that a young Zavier Betts is watching the way he essentially boxes out smaller defenders with his 6-foot-4 frame. Manning is the game-changer, a guy whose only question mark is whether he’s available. Betts, not much smaller at 6-2, spoke openly this week about needing to rebound from a spring that wasn’t up to snuff. Members of this offense have said Betts has as much potential as anyone on the team. 

Samori Toure, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Montana who will start out in the slot, is getting overlooked too often. That’ll change once the year starts. 

Beyond those three, Nebraska has Oliver Martin (who had an exceptional winter and spring), Alante Brown (former blue-chip recruit), Will Nixon (who the coaches remain excited about), Wyatt Liewer (put on scholarship this year), Levi Falck (season-long starter last year), three freshmen who all posses good size and length, and a walk-on corps that has even a few more interesting names. 

You start talking about “well maybe if this guy hits” and you could find yourself talking about six or seven different receivers. That doesn’t win you a ton of preseason brownie points from prognosticators, but it does make the coaches’ lives easier knowing they won’t have to rely on one or two guys for everything. Maybe that means no one player bears the burden Robinson had to carry—undoubtedly a good thing. It also means competition should be at an all-time high—also a good thing.

“I think we have at least six guys that we can play,” said offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. “Our depth this year at receiver compared to last year is night and day. Last year a lot of those guys were first-year guys. Now they’ve all been a year in this system. We actually feel like we have a good three-deep that can go in there and function and play and compete in football games and have success.”

It shouldn’t be glossed over when Lubick references last year being a first for so many of Nebraska’s pass-catchers. The weird COVID-altered season—complete with no spring, limited access to a new offensive coordinator, and altered camp—meant getting on the field early would likely be a sign of natural ability rather than offensive comfort. 

Martin and Betts were out there early, which says something.

Another thing worthy pointing out: Nebraska has eight scholarship receivers standing 6-foot-2 or taller. The length and athleticism at that position is going to be as good as it has in a long time.

Which is also true at tight end. And that group’s potential impact on the passing game is as interesting as any. If Nebraska doesn’t have many dudes, some NFL scouts focused on the veteran pair of Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek were wasting their time last week. 

Can’t get too defensive, though. Again, the production didn’t jump off the page last season. Nebraska made good on its promise to target the tight end more, but their numbers were deflated by the general lack of downfield punch same as everyone else. 

So what do we make of Chris Hickman catching a 70-yarder up the seam this week? Beckton said the third-year tight end has been a pleasant surprise. 

Sounds like those tight ends are getting early looks from the quarterbacks.

Nebraska will have to wait a bit on Thomas Fidone, the prize of the 2021 signing class, as he rehabs a spring ACL injury, but once he returns to full health the room might go three or four deep. 

With Allen at 6-8, Vokolek and Fidone at 6-6, and Hickman at 6-5, Nebraska has athletic receiver-types at tight end. With Vokolek’s improvement as a blocker since his arrival a few seasons ago, and Hickman’s general usage so far pointing to how well coaches view him as a blocker, Nebraska could get super unique with its weapons in Beckton’s room. 

Could the Huskers throw out of 22 personnel? What about out of 13 personnel? We know Nebraska can run from empty sets either via the quarterback or by motioning a wideout into the backfield. If it can start throwing out of heavy sets, that’ll present some play-calling advantages for Scott Frost on Saturdays. Execution will be important, but schematically you can see what Nebraska’s building.

The big tight ends should help the wideout group, too. If Allen demands attention when he’s on the field, someone’s getting a favorable matchup somewhere. 

“Coach Lubick and Coach Frost have basically … designed some plays on the offensive end to get those guys the ball more, change some of the reads for the quarterbacks so (the tight end) is more of a first read for those guys on certain plays,” Beckton said. “They’re pumped about it. They’re seeing a lot of balls come their way.”

Plenty of reason for excitement. 

But what can us outsiders reasonably expect to see? Nebraska throwing the ball all over the yard? Eh, that’s not really Frost’s M.O. to this point in his coaching career. Is it too much to ask for just a more explosive passing game? 

As we move through fall camp, squaring what we hear of the passing game with what we’ve known it to be is going to be one of the more important exercises. 

Nebraska ranked 98th in explosive pass rate last season (20-plus-yard gains) and 114th in yards per point. 

Those both need fixing. 

If Nebraska has some dudes now—pass-catchers who can show more consistency from week to week—it might be able to do just that.

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