Hot Reads: Some Huskers to Watch This Spring . . . Sorta
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Love or Hate: Two Tight Ends, Teaching Shooting and Steady Kickering

April 19, 2019

It’s Friday, let’s get to it.

Two-Man Game

In the week leading up to the Huskers’ spring game, I wrote about the tight end room. About Jack Stoll’s emergence as a pass-catcher, about Katerian LeGrone’s development, about the room’s general growth in the passing game. Nebraska offensive coaches have said on numerous occasions this offseason they want the tight ends to be a bigger part of the offense. 

In trying to replace Stanley Morgan Jr. and all the things he did for this Husker offense in 2018 — both in terms of his own production and the attention he drew by just being on the field — it looked like, at least heading into the spring, someone like Stoll was going to play a pretty key role. 

But now spring ball is in the rearview mirror and it sounds like Nebraska has more questions at receiver coming out of practice than it did heading in (more on that later). The tight end room could become an even bigger part of the offensive attack. 

One thing I wanted to look for in the April 13 spring game was how the tight ends were being used. Nebraska wasn’t in two-tight end sets much last season and the four main guys in that room (Stoll, LeGrone, Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal) only combined to grab roughly 10 percent of the team’s total receptions. I think they’re in line for more usage this season. It looks like they’re going to be on the field more. 

Just from the red team, the presumed first and second-stringers, Nebraska was in two-tight end formations for roughly a third of the team’s called offensive plays. That’s an improvement over last season.

A couple caveats to that. Not having Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman and Stoll most likely influenced this, we just don’t know to what degree yet. Also, penalty-negated plays are added in because they were still called formations that speak to scheme, there’s one play at the end of the third quarter where the offense lined up in a two-tight end look but didn’t snap it, and the estimate comes from re-watching the game’s broadcast, which was somewhat limited by camera angles. 

(Side note: TV crews need to stop trying to get cute with camera angles. Volleyball needs to kill the baseline camera angle. Basketball needs to stop cutting to the baseline on breakaways. Football needs to stop showing the safety point-of-view angle. Just give us the normal side view.)

Right around 32 percent of the snaps the red team took featured Allen and Rafdal on the field together. That included formations with both split out wide on either side of the formation, both occupying the same side of the field, one inline and one offset, one inline and one in the slot, etc.

Lots of possibilities. 

At one point in the third quarter, with Luke McCaffrey at quarterback, Nebraska lined up in the same formation for three straight plays — with Rafdal inline on the right side of the formation and Allen in the slot to the left — and ran a bubble RPO three straight times. Allen was McCaffrey’s first option all three times. The play ended three different ways.

Replace one of those two with Stoll in the regular season and Nebraska can get really creative. One guy on the line to block and one guy off running routes gives Adrian Martinez the ability to go run-pass-option basically every play. Nebraska showed a look with Rafdal set on the right side of the line, Allen starting offset behind him before motioning left, and then Rafdal leaking out to the right to get the ball. 

Scott Frost’s offense, at its peak, is all about window-dressing and misdirection pre-snap. With the Huskers showing more of that in the spring game, I think it’s a strong indication of where the staff feels its team’s comfort level is at in the offense. Exciting times ahead.

Still Like Amir

Plus-six is a new, trendy thing at the NBA level. It’s for identifying plus-potential defensive wings, mostly. Is your wingspan at least six inches longer than your height? Congrats, you’re a plus-six guy, joining a club with guys like Donovan Mitchell and Kawhi Leonard. The average male has a wingspan two inches better than his height. If you’re in the plus-six club and you can pair your tetradactyl arms with above-average athleticism, you’re going to have some pretty crazy potential.

Certainly, Nebraska has Amir Harris’ wingspan measurements. If they do, it’s not public, but I’d imagine he’s either in this club or pretty darn close to meeting the entry requirements.

The sophomore-to-be wing has long arms and freakish athleticism. 

He has pretty crazy potential, I think.

From a previous Love/Hate column, Harris’ freshman year numbers with some historical context:

  • 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes
    • Only two other players have put up that kind of line at Nebraska since 2000: Isaiah Roby (18-19) and Aleks Maric (07-08)
  • 96.6 defensive rating, second-best among rotation members this year
    • The best individual mark from a freshman at Nebraska in the last 10 seasons
  • 57.5 effective field goal percentage, fourth-best among rotation members this year
  • The second-best defensive box plus/minus on the team

Most of those numbers speak to physical gifts. His 3-point shot needs to become a consistent part of his game for him to really reach his ceiling, but Nebraska’s new coaching staff doesn’t view shooting as an inherent ability. It’s learned.

“You can teach that,” assistant coach Armon Gates told me this week. “You’ve got to have the confidence to do it as a shooter, but once you find out the things you’re doing wrong and you get a shooting coach that can really help fine-tune those different things you’re doing wrong… That’s why I think the sky’s the limit for [Harris] because he has the other attributes. You can’t teach the athleticism, but you can definitely teach some other things and shooting is one.”

Harris can play off-guard or he can play out on the wing. That length he possesses gives him the ability to guard multiple positions on the floor and play bigger than his 6-foot-5 height would suggest. He’s one of Nebraska’s bright spots, and even though he went his entire freshman campaign without taking a shot beyond the arc, he’s not likely to be phased out of Fred Hoiberg’s pace-and-space offense.

“He’s able to do some things defensively and on the offensive glass and slashing to the basket,” Gates said. “I think he can space the floor and catch-and-go, those types of things that Coach Hoiberg has been preaching to the team already. … He can be an asset to this program for sure.”

Harris is still dealing with the injury that knocked him out of the lineup to close the 2018-19 season, meaning he hasn’t yet gotten on the floor in front of his new coach, but Harris could be a significant piece of this thing moving forward. A three-man lineup of Jervay Green, Dachon Burke and Amir Harris would give Hoiberg the ability to play the brand of basketball he wants. Fast, athletic and fun.

Steady Kickering

Barret Pickering was shaky to begin last season. Understandable. He was a true freshman and true freshman kickers have to take their lumps. Drew Brown was an all-time kind of kicker at Nebraska and even he had a rough freshman season.

Pickering missed his only field goal attempt against Colorado and the Huskers lost by five. He missed another against Troy and the Huskers again lost by five. He missed a kick and an extra point against Northwestern and we know how that game ended. 

This isn’t to put last season’s losses on the kicker. Not even close, he won Nebraska the game against Michigan State and made his last nine kicks on the year. But, would the complexion of those early games have changed if he made his kicks? Would that have changed the trajectory of the season? Maybe. Maybe not. But the encouraging thing is Pickering looks much steadier now. 

Kicker wasn’t even a topic of conversation in the spring. There wasn’t a single story written about the spot or the guy occupying it. It’s one of those spots you don’t notice until you notice. He was noticeable in the Red-White game, but for good reasons. Pickering went 3-for-3 and connected from 27, 33 and 45 yards out. 

Most expect the Huskers to have a stronger offense in 2019. If that’s the case, it doesn’t just bump up the margin for error for the defense, it helps ease the pressure on special teams to create game-changing plays. Pickering ideally won’t have to be great, but he’ll need to be a guy the staff doesn’t worry about.

And there doesn’t seem to be much worrying about the kicker right now.

Where are the Wideouts?

Jaron Woodyard had the highlight of the day for the wide receivers. His 21-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter was a great throw-and-catch between Martinez and himself. But that was about it. 

Woodyard probably could have had another touchdown and should have had another touchdown later in the game but couldn’t haul in the catch. Mike Williams, the other senior wideout on the team, didn’t make a single play. Andre Hunt caught two passes for 12 yards. Jaevon McQuitty, as the only scholarship receiver on the white team, caught one pass for 12 yards. 

Not a great day for the wideouts. 

Which probably shouldn’t be too terribly over-analyzed, it’s one of 15 practices after all, but it’s worrisome that the Huskers have emerged from those 15 practices with absolutely no answers at wide receiver. 

Hunt got the majority of the praise from position coach and offensive coordinator Troy Walters through the spring. Williams and McQuitty were rarely talked about. 

JD Spielman is reaching a point where we might have to start worrying about his ability to stay healthy consistently and Wan’Dale Robinson, for all his promise, is a 5-foot-10, 180-pound freshman. I like the pieces in the room, but it should at least be discussed Nebraska went through a month-and-a-half of training without one of the other guys truly emerging.

All the Hate

Asked who he viewed as a rival during his playing days, head baseball coach Darin Erstad said he hated everyone equally. It was another attempt to get a Nebraska coach to talk about Iowa hate ahead of a game with the Hawkeyes. We did it with football coaches before the Black Friday game last year. Heck, I went to Big Ten Media Days and asked Iowa football players if they consider Nebraska a rival.

I get that the respect isn’t there. But the annoying part of this conversation is everyone’s refusal on both sides of the line to call each other rivals. Both teams hate each other. Both fanbases hate each other (check my Twitter mentions). They play every year and regional geography puts everyone in close proximity with each other all the time. From the outside, this fits every criterion for a rivalry game. 

Stop acting like it isn’t one. 

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