June has been an eventful month for the Nebraska football program—it brought both good and bad news.
The good news is the Huskers gained five commitments for the 2023 class in receiver Jaidyn Doss, offensive lineman Brock Knutson, linebacker Hayden Moore, defensive lineman Riley Van Poppel and EDGE Maverick Noonan. Getting pledges from Doss, Van Poppel and Moore were important in that they all come from areas the Huskers want to recruit harder. Van Poppel is from Texas while Doss is from the Kansas City area and Moore from Colorado, both of which fall in the 500-mile radius.
Knutson, an in-state product from Scottsbluff, was a strong recruiting win over Matt Campbell and Iowa State. Noonan, a Husker legacy from Elkhorn South, was a great pickup in terms of what it means for the program both on and off the field. On the field, Noonan is a high-motor defender who resembles Garrett Nelson and could develop into a strong pass rusher, something that’s greatly needed on the team. Off the field, Noonan’s commitment shows that Nebraska is still relevant with highly-touted in-state prospects. That’s important, considering the top four players in the 2022 class—all four-star recruits—went to programs outside the state.
The bad news is that this past Saturday Husker fans learned that the projected starter at left guard, Nouredin Nouili, will miss the 2022 season after a failed drug test. Nouili, a native of Frankfurt, Germany, and a Norris High School product, started the final seven games at left guard last year. The former transfer from Colorado State began the year as a walk-on but ended the campaign as a scholarship lineman.
What’s Nouili’s absence mean for first-year offensive line coach Donovan Raiola and his unit that’s looking for a bounce-back season? We detail that right here.
The countdown of the Huskers’ 10 most intriguing players for the 2022 season continues on, however. We’re only two picks deep, and both have a defensive backs flare to them:
Before we break down our No. 8 selection, let’s clarify something first: What do we mean by intriguing? Oxford Languages defines intriguing as arousing one’s curiosity or interest. In other words, fascinating. Which 10 Huskers fascinate you the most heading into the season? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda, our No. 8 selection.
Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda | 6 feet, 185 pounds | Receiver
When Garcia-Castaneda’s name emerged as a transfer-portal target for Nebraska and its newly-hired receivers coach Mickey Joseph last December, one trait stood out above others: big-play ability. Garcia-Castaneda showed it in his lone season at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, and again at the Division I level with New Mexico State.
As a true freshman for Saddleback in 2019, Garcia-Castaneda caught 56 passes for 953 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged over 20 yards per catch in four of the 11 games he played in and had touchdown receptions of 72, 68, 60 and 54 yards.
After a COVID-altered 2020 campaign with New Mexico State where he hauled in just five catches for 61 yards, Garcia-Castaneda enjoyed a breakout 2021 season. The speedster caught 37 passes for 578 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. He kept that big-play ability, too, averaging 15.62 yards per reception while recording catches of 75, 55, 41 and 40 yards.
Here’s Garcia-Castaneda’s 75-yard score against in-state rival New Mexico. You can see his break-away speed and how smooth and effortless his strides are:
Here’s another look at Garcia-Castaneda, this time against San Jose State. With a better throw from his quarterback, Jonah Johnson, Garcia-Castaneda likely scores or gets a larger gain:
Several Power Five programs started to notice Garcia-Castaneda, who wound up picking up offers from Arizona, Iowa State, Minnesota and Utah, last year’s Pac-12 champions. The Huskers obviously won the recruitment, but Garcia-Castaneda’s debut in Lincoln has been delayed. Due to an injury, he wasn’t able to practice with the team during the spring.
The fact that Garcia-Castaneda didn’t play in the spring makes him a wildcard in the Huskers’ receivers room. Nebraska lost four of its top five pass catchers from last year (Samori Touré, Austin Allen, Zavier Betts and Levi Falck) and returns just 36% of the receiving yards (1,161), 40% of the catches (88) and 42% of the touchdown receptions (six).
To help replace that production, the Huskers took to the transfer portal and found three receivers who came from Division I programs, including Trey Palmer from LSU, Marcus Washington from Texas and, of course, Garcia-Castaneda. Along with those three portal additions, Joseph signed three high school wideouts in the 2022 class, including four-star Janiran Bonner and three-stars Decoldest Crawford and Victor Jones.
Without being on the field this spring, it’s hard to gauge how far behind Garcia-Castaneda is from the other receivers who went through the 15 practices. The others have been working on creating a connection with the quarterbacks, who want to get a feel for how everyone runs their routes.
“It’s super important, because there are a lot of guys with different speeds,” quarterback Chubba Purdy said on ‘Sports Nightly’ earlier this month of the offseason work that’s being put in between the QBs and receivers. “Tight ends, you have to be timed up with them, they’re a little slower. And we have a lot of fast receivers, so you have to get the ball out on time. So right now, working out on the indoor and doing seven-on-seven and routes on air is very big for the quarterbacks.”
It’s important to remember that, while Nebraska’s receiver room has potential, it’s still fair to question how effective the passing offense is going to be with all the new pieces. A starting quarterback has yet to be named, though veteran signal caller Casey Thompson, a 10-game starter at Texas last year, appears to be in the lead over Purdy and Logan Smothers. Whoever comes out of fall camp as QB1 will be operating an offense that was just installed this past spring by first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.
A common saying in football is a good run game is a quarterback’s best friend. Being able to gain yards on the ground with a traditional handoff run game is a crucial part to any successful offense—it helps keep quarterbacks healthy and opens up a downfield passing attack. If Nebraska wants to take advantage of a favorable schedule to start, the offensive line needs to be better than it was last year.
However, the confidence in an improved offensive line took a hit with the Nouili news. On top of that, the team’s projected top two tackles, Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka, didn’t practice this spring as they both rehabbed injuries, though they’re expected back for fall camp in late July.
Raiola has quite the job in front of him now. Of all the positions outside of quarterback, his unit’s performance will have the most impact on how successful the offense is.
While Garcia-Castaneda can likely play both inside at the slot or outside as the X or Z receiver, he would be a more intriguing option on the outside, where he primarily played at New Mexico State. His downfield speed could help open more passing lanes in the middle of the field, where slot receivers like Palmer and Alante Brown, as well as tight end Travis Vokolek, could do damage.
Of course, Garcia-Castaneda will need to prove he can produce at the Power Five level. The Big Ten is a different animal than junior college and New Mexico State. A Touré-like 2022 season shouldn’t be expected for Garcia-Castaneda. If he can be a consistent member of Joseph’s rotation and catch around 300-400 receiving yards with a couple touchdowns, that should be considered a success.