Tight end has been the most stable position room at Nebraska since Scott Frost and his staff arrived in Lincoln. For the most part, the same guys have handled the majority of the tight end snaps the last two years.
That had a chance to change this spring, even though Jack Stoll and Austin Allen are back once again. There’s a newcomer in Sean Beckton’s room, and he had an opportunity in front of him this spring to shake up a depth chart that has looked pretty similar over the last two years.
“Newcomer” probably isn’t the right word, though, considering he’s been in Lincoln for a while and was on the team last year. However, after going through his mandated redshirt year, he’s finally ready to take the field at Memorial Stadium.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, that player is Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek. The 6-foot-6 redshirt junior earned a spot on the 105-man fall camp roster last year even though he wasn’t eligible to play in 2019, and he likely would have been one of the more popular names around Lincoln had the COVID-19 pandemic not shut down spring football across the country.
Beckton only got a couple of practices to work with Vokolek before everything shut down, but he liked what he saw—and what he heard from the strength coaches.
“He’s strong, probably up to about 260, so he’s gained a little bit of weight but he also moves well with it,” Beckton told reporters on the first day of spring practice. “All the strength coaches rave about his work ethic.”
As a freshman, Vokolek played in seven games and caught one pass for 14 yards. As a sophomore, he led the Scarlet Knight tight ends in receptions with 16 for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
Beckton doesn’t know what Vokolek’s 40 time is, but he knows the big tight end runs well enough to get the job done in Nebraska’s system. Physically, he’s in between the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Stoll and the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Allen.
“[Fans are] going to see a big physical kid that can run,” Beckton said. “He’s still knocking the rust off from last year, but I expect the fans to know his name really early. He’s worked extremely hard to clean up some of the flaws that he had when he was at Rutgers. He’s done a tremendous job there, he’s night-and-day from where he was when he first got here as far as his stance and being able to strike people at the proper landmark and being able to drive people off the ball, and then also being able to get down the field in our passing game.”
Beckton said he expects Vokolek to be a complete tight end, though he certainly wasn’t that when he arrived in Lincoln.
“His strength has always been in the passing game,” Bekcton said. “Big, strong kid that can run. When the ball’s in the air, he’s going to go up and get it. That hasn’t changed. We’ve detailed a little more of his route-running ability but the biggest thing he’s improved on is his point of attack and being able to block people up front.”
Aside from the strength he’s gained, technique is where Vokolek has seen the most growth. Heck, when Beckton first started working with him, he was only used to lining up to the right of the formation, in a right-handed stance. He had to learn how to play on both sides along with all the other footwork and blocking techniques that Beckton shows his players.
“He’s really, really improved in that area in order to step and get the strength to block people at the proper landmark,” Beckton said.
Stoll has started and played the majority of the snaps the last two years and has 46 receptions for 479 yards and four touchdowns in that role. Allen made big strides from his redshirt freshman role and earned an -OR- on the depth chart alongside Stoll. He only caught seven passes for 83 yards, but his snap count increased significantly from the previous season. Now Vokolek will look to push both of them, whenever football resumes.
“We’re a big family in our room, and those guys know that Travis has a ton of ability, which is going to make those guys even better,” Beckton said. “It’s going to make those guys work even harder to keep their position and also keep their playing time. They know that Travis is going to come practice at a high level and they know he’s going to play at a high level.
“It’s been really, really good to have him in the room but the thing that’s refreshing is those other guys — Jack, Austin and Kurt [Rafdal] — really, really helped him develop when he first got here, and now today you see those guys in the lunch room, they’re always together, including [Chris] Hickman. Those guys are really really close and they want each other to be great. It’s really, really going to improve our room as far as the competition.”
Outside of Hickman, who was slated to split his time between wide receiver and tight end as a hybrid player this spring, all four of Nebraska’s scholarship tight ends are upperclassmen. According to Beckton, that’s pretty rare.
“We’ve been blessed here to have some really great tight ends before these guys, but these guys are really going to continue with the tradition,” Beckton said. “The guys we have that were here before Travis have developed and created a nice bond and given us some depth there. Obviously with Travis’s addition, that’s going to bolster our room more. We have to do some things to make sure we get those guys on the field more—a little more two-tight end and possibly three-tight end packages down the road. All those things, Coach [Matt] Lubick, Coach [Scott] Frost and I have sat down and tried to come up with some things there. Whether we show that this spring, I don’t know if we’ll get to it, but there’s opportunities there for getting multiple guys on the field. “
With Vokolek’s previous experience and the work he’s put in over the last year, Beckton expects him to hit the ground running once things get started for real. However, the loss of spring ball has taken away Vokolek’s chance to build up some camaraderie and comfort with the quarterbacks in the passing game and the offensive tackles within the blocking schemes.
Despite that loss time, Vokolek will have a chance to bolster an already solid position as the Huskers head into the 2020 season.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.