Few things get fans more excited than a high-profile football commit from the high school ranks, but even the best recruiting classes often don’t pay major dividends until a few years down the road.
However, a select few avoid a redshirt year and earn immediate playing time, whether it be on offense, defense or special teams. In Mike Riley’s first year in Lincoln, six true freshmen played right away: wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., running back Devine Ozigbo, safeties Antonio Reed an Aaron Williams, linebacker Dedrick Young II and long snapper Jordan Ober. Last year, only four players made an immediate impact – running back Tre Bryant, safety JoJo Domann, cornerback Lamar Jackson and punter Caleb Lightbourn.
That’s 10 players over two years, but two of them were specialists, and with Drew Brown, Ober and Lightbourn all returning, the primary specialist jobs are all locked up. Three of the remaining eight were offensive players while five were on the defensive side of the ball.
Which members of the 2017 class might fans see on the field come the fall? Let’s take a look.
Elijah Blades, CB, ****
Blades is the only defensive back in the 2017 class and he will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Lamar Jackson who contributed on special teams primarily while getting a few snaps on defense here and there.
Blades is the second highest rated player in the class according to Hail Varsity’s composite at 93.7. At 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, Blades provides another tall, athletically dynamic option at corner similar to Jackson.’’
The Huskers have two strong starting corners in Jackson and Chris Jones, but it is wide open behind those two. None of Eric Lee Jr., Boaz Joseph, Avery Anderson or Dicaprio Bootle have any significant experience at this point.
Damion Daniels, NT, ***
Daniels isn’t the highest-rated recruit in the class with a composite of 86.9, but he might be the biggest player on the team from the moment he arrives on campus at 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds.
Mick Stoltenberg is in line to start at the nose and Khalil Davis looks like a viable back-up, but there are not many options in terms of guys with the physical tools to man the nose. If injuries were to strike at the position, Nebraska might need to turn to Daniels earlier than anticipated.
Tyjon Lindsey, WR, ****
Lindsey is the top-rated recruit in the class according to the Hail Varsity composite at 95.9, and as such this is a pretty easy call. The 5-foot-9 dynamo is going to bring some serious speed and game-breaking ability.
With little in the way of proven options at wide receiver, especially ones that can stretch the field after the graduation of Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore, Lindsey brings something to the field the Huskers need.
Jaevon McQuitty, WR, ****
McQuitty is another 4-star wide receiver and the lack of proven depth is true in his case as well. At 6-foot and 195 pounds, McQuitty is more similar to someone like Stanley Morgan Jr. than a pure burner like Lindsey. He has tremendous hands and is capable of coming down with 50-50 balls at a high rate. McQuitty enrolled early to get a head start, but a shoulder injury kept him from participating fully in practice.
Kurt Rafdal, TE, ***
The Huskers brought in a pair of gigantic tight ends in the 2017 class, and Rafdal is the one more ready to play early because of his 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame. The three tight ends that handle almost every snap last year all ran out of eligibility, leaving the tight end roles up for grabs. Tyler Hoppes was fourth on the depth chart last year and appears to have taken the lead for the No. 1 job. After him, it looks to be Matt Snyder and Jack Stoll, but neither of them have proven much.
Avery Roberts, ILB, ****
Roberts was another early enrollee, and he appears to have used that head start to earn one of the back-up inside linebacker jobs already. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker from Delaware was the third-ranked recruit in the class and flashed his immense potential throughout spring practice. As long as he makes it through fall camp healthy, Roberts will be in the two-deep and likely play on multiple special teams units as well.
Guy Thomas, OLB, ***
Nebraska is still searching for the right fit at the outside linebacker spots, and if Nebraska isn’t getting the pass rush it needs come the fall the coaches could turn to the explosive edge rusher from Miami. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Thomas might not yet have the ideal physical attributes, but he does have a knack for getting to the quarterback.
Deontre Thomas, DL, *** or Deiontae Watts, DL, ***
Nose tackle isn’t the only defensive line spot that is short on depth. After AJ Natter’s likely season-ending injury suffered during the spring, Nebraska has only six scholarship bodies at defensive end including the two freshmen. Thomas is listed at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, while Watts is a little bigger at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds. If Nebraska suffers any further injuries at the position and one of the two freshmen can beat out the walk-ons.
Under the best case scenario, Blades, Lindsey, McQuitty and Roberts are the four most likely freshmen to play right away. If Nebraska needs any additional depth, whether by injury or upperclassmen failing to live up to expectations, the other four could earn roles as well.