What a first year on the job it has been for Husker wideout coach and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick. You’d be forgiven if you forgot he even held that title. Lubick’s hiring was announced in mid-January, he got two spring ball practices under his belt with a room that only featured four scholarship wideouts at the time, and then had everything shut down.
“I loved where we were going, and then all of the sudden this hit,” Lubick said Tuesday night during an appearance on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show. “This” being the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting college football today.
In the spring, his most seasoned scholarship guy was Wan’Dale Robinson, who had an entire year of experience. He had redshirt freshman Chris Hickman making the move from tight end to wideout on much closer to a full-time basis. He had two other redshirt freshmen who played sparingly in 2019 and a true freshman. Seven receivers in total, four of them scholarship guys, would arrive later in the summer.
Lubick was just trying to learn names.
He’d ask, “Who’s that?” after a guy broke away from a defender. He was relying on junior walk-on Kade Warner to help with the on-field coaching.
“It’s been crazy,” he said.
But Lubick seems the type to bask in the positives rather than stew in the negatives.
“The one thing that was good, football-wise, is it gave you time to look and study and regroup and gather your thoughts,” he said. “When I first got here, it was kind of just a whirlwind trying to get my feet on the ground. So, I feel a lot better about where we’re going as an offense.”
The experience piece of it, or Nebraska’s near-complete lack thereof, is not something worth fretting over, he says.
“The thing about experience is it is what it is, you control what you can control,” he said. “There’s nothing better than having live reps, and we’ll get that as we go.
“I’m excited about it to be honest with you. The kids I’ve been working with—you spend a ton of time on Zoom—have been awesome. The older guys have been helping out the younger guys. I’m really excited about their attitude, and I think we have talent.”
The attitude is important with Lubick, especially right now.
Nebraska’s coaches have been incredibly limited in what they’ve been able to do with their team this offseason. Before July 13, workouts were voluntary. Before July 13, coaches hadn’t worked in any kind of on-field capacity with their players since early March. Even now, they get 20 hours a week of weight room conditioning and walk-throughs and film review, but when fall camp begins on (or around) Aug. 7, everyone will be behind.
“We really had to rely on our leaders to work with the players,” Lubick said. “The whole thing for me is to get them to know our vision and what we expect, and then they’ve got to carry it out.”
Lubick credited two main guys with really taking that mission to heart this offseason: Robinson and Warner.
“Since I’ve been here, his leadership ability—he was just a freshman, but we didn’t treat him like a freshman, we’re treating him like an experienced guy coming back to be a leader by example—he’s taken that a step further and reached out to younger guys and driven our group and making them better by the way he works and being vocal about it,” Lubick said of the former Kentucky high school standout. “He’s embraced that and that’s going to be huge for our whole offense.”
Lubick was impressed with Robinson’s freshman year tape, lauding the playmaker’s ability to at-times-seamlessly move between running back and wideout. “His football intelligence blows me away,” Lubick said. “He’s one of those guys who can learn on video, you can tell him one thing and he can go out there and do it with not a lot of reps.”
Robinson’s a natural fit to be a leader of on a football team, he’s just still so young.
Warner, though. Warner is a seasoned vet at this point by Nebraska standards. The fourth-year junior, Lubick says, might be more mature than the 25-year coach.
“He’s amazing. He’s very similar to Wan’Dale. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I don’t think I’ve been around a more mature person than Kade Warner,” Lubick said. “I ask him for feedback. ‘How’d you guys do this last year?’ He helps me coach guys. … I know the whole team looks up to him, I look up to him.”
Warner might surprise some folks this season, Lubick thinks. He played through an ankle injury throughout 2019 the extent of which wasn’t fully revealed at the time by the staff. “He’s not just the leader of the walk-ons, he’s one of our leaders for the football team,” Lubick said.
High praise for a non-scholarship player. Nebraska’s coaching staff has been fond of Warner since their arrival following the 2017 season, but they have yet to award him a scholarship. He’ll look for one this season, but he won’t be the only guy with a shot at one, it seems.
“Here’s the best thing I can say: I don’t know who’s a walk-on,” Lubick said, adding that often times there’s an athletic disparity between the guys on scholarship and the guys who aren’t when it comes to the skill positions. “I was out there in offseason workouts just trying to learn names. I go, ‘Who’s this guy?’ and they go, ‘Coach, that guy’s not even on scholarship.’ I go, ‘You kidding me?’ We didn’t have guys like that anywhere else I’ve been. It’s a big credit—I know it’s a tradition thing here—to Kenny Wilhite, Coach Frost has emphasized it. These walk-ons are going to play for us this year for sure.
“Every one of these guys is a good football player and can help us. That’s the thing. You put a guy out there and he can do a rep and there’s not a huge drop-off. I do think there will be some guys who surprise some guys that eventually will be on scholarship.”
Doesn’t sound like a coach too worried about the depth of his room.
Though, to be frank, Lubick is still somewhat learning his room.
He was hesitant to give any kind of individualized report about the summer arrival receivers like Omar Manning or Zavier Betts. “It’s hard to really give a good evaluation until you actually see those guys on the field, moving around, and doing things,” he said. “But we could not be more excited about having that many playmakers in one class.”
That was as specific as he got.
Asked directly about Manning and his history with junior college receivers, Lubick said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Some guys are ready to make the jump right away. Some need time to learn the system.
“It’s not always the most talented guy that plays the fastest—I tell the guys this all the time—it’s the guy who can learn it and have confidence and go out there,” he said.
Nebraska will soon learn whether Manning is ready or not.
It’ll learn the same with guys like Betts, Brown, and Florida speedster Marcus Fleming.
Lubick certainly is not a man without options. But he’s got a task in front of him, that’s for sure. Head coach Scott Frost has said this offseason that Lubick will have to earn his money right away by getting the room ready to go on a shortened timetable.
Experience is in short supply.
But it seems Robinson and Warner have helped in that arena in more ways than one.
Other News and Notes
>> Nebraska views the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Chris Hickman as a matchup terror. He made the switch from tight end to wideout in the spring, though Lubick said he was learning wideout concepts even while still in tight end coach Sean Beckton’s room.
“It’s an easy move for him from tight end to receiver because we cross-train those guys. (In) the R, which is what he plays and is also what Wan’Dale plays, we can ask him to do things the tight end does—that he already knows—but also split him out and play wideout,” Lubick said. “He’s just doing things a little more flexed out, but he’s still capable of being attached and doing all the things we ask of a tight end. We love having that in our offense, it makes us more versatile.”
Pay extra attention to the position. That Duck-R slot spot is Nebraska’s do-everything spot. If that’s where Hickman’s working, that would certainly pose matchup nightmares for defensive coordinators.
“We love his toughness,” Lubick said. “I saw him on cut-ups, and he didn’t get a ton of reps, but when he did he took advantage of them. He showed a lot of toughness and physicality. He’s a big-bodied guy that has great range, a good athlete, great frame.”
Another potential weapon.
>> Of the two redshirt freshmen wideouts on the team last season, Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston, Lubick says he likes the attitudes of both.
“They both want to get on the field. As a coach, you do your best to motivate guys, but if they’re not motivated to get on the field and want to work hard, it’s an uphill battle. They’ve solved that one,” he said. “They need reps.
“They both have tremendous speed, which we need on the field. I think they’re getting more comfortable and confident, that comes with reps. They did some really good things each day in those three practices we had. I know they’re putting a ton of time in this summer like everyone else is to put themselves in a position this summer so they can help us this fall.”
>> Of Brown, an early enrollee in January and the top-rated prep prospect from the 2020 class, Lubick praised the football IQ. He likened the Chicago native to Robinson in his ability to pick up the nuances of playing wideout in Nebraska’s offense.
Quick blinker. Quick runner.
“You could make the argument he’s our fastest guy,” Lubick said. “I’ve never put those guys on a clock, but he can run. He broke away a few times this spring and you’re like, ‘Wow, this guy’s a playmaker.’ He impressed everyone in that short amount of time.”
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.