In fewer than 10 days, Nebraska football will finally be able to put on pads again for actual football practice. Yes, it has really been that long.
“It’ll feel a little different,” sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson said Monday in an interview with Husker Sports Nightly.
Different indeed. The Huskers got a couple of practices in during the spring session, but not enough to go full-pads, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted college sports in March. The same thing happened with fall camp in August––a few practices, yes. Full pads? No.
But now, with the Big Ten’s decision to play this fall and subsequent schedule announcement in the rearview mirror, that typically mundane threshold will finally be met. Perhaps it will offer some solace to the Huskers after a trying month that saw a schedule released, a season canceled, a season reborn and then a new schedule released.
“It was really hard,” Robinson said of the past 30 or so days. “At the end of the day, we just tried to stay positive.”
Despite the uncertainty of the past month, Robinson said the Huskers were able to maintain a singular focus. Rather than focusing on what they weren’t allowed to do, the players focused on what they could. They knew they’d play at some point, even if it was the spring, “so why not get better?”
Nebraska won’t have to wait quite that long. The Huskers are scheduled to open the season Oct. 24 at Ohio State. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the preseason Associated Press poll but dropped out after the first week of the season. The AP asked voters not to rank teams that weren’t playing, meaning preseason No. 7 Penn State, No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 16 Michigan, No. 19 Minnesota and No. 24 Iowa also went from ranked to unranked without playing a game.
The only team in that group that Nebraska isn’t scheduled face over the course of an eight-game schedule is Michigan. It’s a tough slate and Robinson will be key to how the Huskers are able to manage it.
He’s Nebraska’s leading returning receiver following the departure of JD Spielman, who transferred to TCU for his final season. As a true freshman, Robinson had 40 catches for 453 yards with two receiving touchdowns over 10 games. That usage rate, even though he’s only a sophomore, is enough to make Robinson the veteran in a young wide receiver room. Seven of Nebraska’s nine scholarship receivers are freshmen. Another, Omar Manning, is a junior-college transfer in his first year with the program.
Much of the receivers’ time over this longer-than-expected offseason was spent on developing speed and detailed route running under new offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Matt Lubick, Robinson said. While it remains a young group, the Huskers were able to add some size that was lacking a year ago. Manning is listed at 6-foot-4 while true freshman Zavier Betts, a 4-star prospect from Bellevue West, is listed at 6-foot-2.
“It’s definitely nice,” Robinson said, “to have some size on the outside to scare some people. But, at the end of the day, everybody just has to make plays no matter the size.”
Manning and Betts could be among the Huskers’ first options on the outside because Robinson, 5-foot-10, likely has the job of slot receiver locked up. In addition to the 40 receptions in 2019, playing in the slot also allowed Robinson to motion into the backfield where he tallied 88 carries for 340 yards, third-most in both categories for Nebraska last season.
Coach Scott Frost said in the spring the the hoped the Huskers wouldn’t have to lean on Robinson to carry so much of the rushing load this year, which might mean moving Robinson around more in the passing game.
“Throughout the whole offseason I knew that route running and just being healthy were a large part of my progression,” he said. “And then, going through things with the quarterbacks and trying to see things through their eyes and just becoming a complete receiver, running inside and outside, I don’t really have to come off the field at all.”
Nebraska is currently able to spend 20 hours per week on the field practicing, up from the 12 hours the NCAA allowed before the Big Ten announced its return to play. Athletic Director Bill Moos said the Huskers will not be able to practice in pads until Sept. 30, a date that should allow for daily, rapid COVID testing to be in place.