When head coach Scott Frost talked to his team Monday morning, he wanted to talk about toughness.
“I give a lot of credit to Illinois’ secondary, they were physical in that game, they put a lot of hits on our guys and a couple of our little guys,” Frost said. “JD is tough. Wan’Dale took some shots and kept going. It is good to see the heart out of some of those guys.”
JD being junior wideout JD Spielman. Wan’Dale obviously being freshman wideout Wan’Dale Robinson. Spielman is listed 5-foot-9, 180. Robinson is 5-foot-10, 190. “Little guys” is an appropriate characterization. And Illinois’ safeties were bringing the wood. Oh my were those dudes hitting.
“He took some shots,” said offensive coordinator Troy Walters, in the understatement of the season so far. “I’m up in the press box just cringing at times. He’s a tough kid, man.”
The wideout finished with 159 yards on seven catches (11 targets). It was his sixth career 100-yard day and the 25th-straight game he’s had multiple catches. Most of them came at a cost.
He got hit on Nebraska’s first drive. He got hit early and he got hit late. He kept getting back up.
Which to a casual observer had to be remarkable. He would go over the middle, get blasted, get right back up, jog right back to the huddle and do the same thing over again. To anyone with a vested interest in Nebraska, it was something adjacent to inspiring.
“I got a great deal of respect for JD,” said defensive backs coach Travis Fisher. “He was all over the field taking hits from all over the place and he was jumping back up, jumping back in the huddle, playing full-speed. That just shows the kind of toughness we have on this team and it also shows how much this team is coming along.
“Guess what, if there was somebody else on that sideline during the game that was feeling a little banged up that saw JD going through that, he said, ‘Hey man, I gotta go now.’ Credit to JD and credit to a lot of guys that are playing banged up. Guess what man, this time of the year, everybody’s banged up. Tough guys are gonna step on the football field.”
Spielman doesn’t say much to the media. He actually hasn’t done an interview with local people since the 2017 season. He’s a jokester and a guy who talks a ton to his teammates off the field, but between the lines, they get a lot of what we get — a business-like mindset.
Either Spielman feels like it’s his responsibility to just keep getting back up after getting hit or he doesn’t care or it just generally doesn’t hurt because Minnesota/Nebraska winters have hardened him to the point of Terminator levels of pain tolerance. (Things get weird when you don’t talk, JD.) Whatever the reason, you bet that has an impact on his teammates when he keeps playing with that fearless attitude.
“That shows that he’s a warrior and he’s going to ride for everybody,” Robinson said. “So that makes everybody else feel like they have to do the same thing. Take a hit and you just have to shake it off, get back up and play the next play.”
Robinson says the thing he loves about Spielman is that he’s always going to do the right thing, do his job and not focus on a lot of extra-curricular nonsense. Spielman probably could have felt a certain way about a few of those Illini hits that came in high or late, but there was never even a hint of a reaction. Calm, cool, collected.
“I don’t like seeing JD getting hit like that but he has my back,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said, adding to the list of people this week with complimentary things to saw about the Huskers’ go-to guy. “He went up there and made a ton of tough catches and he came back. He’s a true warrior, and I think that speaks to the type of player JD is. He’s willing to bounce back and he’s willing to play for his teammates.”
So, as the game wears on and you see Robinson go up for a ball over the middle of the field, get popped in the back and up-ended, and still hang on to the football, you think back to Spielman. That’s a leader out there setting the example for his teammates.
“I feel like I can do that every game,” Robinson said of the workload that kept him in the ice bath or the hot tub a little longer than usual. “I’ll never not want the ball, I’ll never not want touches. I’ll do whatever I have to do to help our team win.”
A lot of that is Robinson’s personality. But, hey, I’d be surprised if some of that isn’t bleeding over from Spielman.
“You gotta have the heart of a lion to run across the middle in this league,” running back coach Ryan Held said. “If you want to play in this league and you want to play, you gotta go across the middle and be able to take shots and get right back up and go. You’ve got to be a dog. Obviously JD showed that. Wan’Dale took a shot. That’s just the way it is. What we do offensively there’s going to be seam opportunities, but you’ve got to be willing to catch it and take a shot. You might as well catch it, because you’re going to get hit anyway.”
With a defense littered with NFL talent coming to Memorial Stadium this weekend and Big Ten play firmly under way, the hits aren’t going away anytime soon. Nebraska needs guys like Spielman and Robinson to make big plays in big moments.
“That’s the attitude that we are going to need this week against Ohio State, a physical toughness but also mental toughness,” Walters said. “Going out expecting to win, expecting to make a play, he exhibits that and he’s a great guy to have on this stage.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.