Zavier Betts was one of the biggest gets in Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting class. The explosive 6-foot-2 wideout was a 4-star, top-150 recruit coming out of Bellevue West High School in 2020.
Expectations were high heading into his freshman season, but playing time was up and down. Even so, he flashed his immense potential, recording 12 receptions for 131 yards (third-most on the team) and a touchdown.
What could Betts bring to the Nebraska passing attack with an expanded role in 2021? Let’s look back at his film to find out.
Betts played in six games and caught at least one pass in each of them. He made his Nebraska debut against Northwestern and caught on pass on a simple 5-yard comeback route. He high-pointed the ball but was tackled immediately after the catch. Martinez targeted him again on the next play as he ran to the sticks on second-and-5 and sat down, catching the ball and quickly getting upfield, running through his tackler and falling forward for a 12-yard gain.
Betts made a bigger splash in his second game against Penn State, recording his first touchdown as a Husker. On his first snap of the game, he lined up off the line to the left of the formation. Adrian Martinez sent him across the field on a jet motion.
Martinez pitched the ball forward to Betts for the jet sweep (making it a pass play).
Jack Stoll blocked the outside linebacker and Dedrick Mills took out the inside linebacker to open up the hole for Betts to turn the corner. Meanwhile, Travis Vokolek climbed to the second level.
Betts ran through the alley created by his blockers and Vokolek blocked the safety, opening up a cut-back lane for Betts.
From there, the Nittany Lions didn’t have anyone left to stop Betts and he turned on the jets, turning a one-foot shovel pass into a 45-yard gain.
The trailing defender wasn’t able to catch up until too late as he tapped Betts on the back as the receiver crossed the goal line for the touchdown.
Not bad for his second career touch, huh?
Betts added a 9-yard gain on another short sit-down route, taking advantage of a 10-yard route given to him on second-and-7.
Betts only drew one target against Illinois, and he made it count. On second-and-4, Betts lined up wide left with the defender giving him a 10-yard cushion.
Betts took advantage of the soft coverage by running a 7-yard out route.
Luke McCaffrey put the ball a bit high but Betts snatched it out of the air as two defenders closed in on him.
Betts showed off some fancy footwork, making the corner miss and running through the arm tackle attempt.
The safety was there to clean it up, however, and he wasn’t able to run through that tackle.
The play went for 9 yards and gave Nebraska a new set of downs.
Betts made his first career start against Iowa, taking a jet sweep for 15 yards on his only touch. He also made an impact without the ball in his hands. No block, no rock, right?
On Nebraska’s first play, the Huskers called a screen for Wan’Dale Robinson to the left side. Betts was the outside receiver there with tight ends Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek to his right.
Betts worked upfield and engaged with the cornerback while Allen kicked out to clear the safety out of the way as Martinez tossed the ball to Robinson.
Betts drove the cornerback back out of the way while Vokolek took out the outside linebacker rotating over, giving Robinson a lane to run through (after he made the inside linebacker miss as he crossed the line of scrimmage).
The weak side outside linebacker made a great play to chase Robinson down and tackle him from the far side of the formation, but not before he picked up a dozen yards.
Betts drove his assignment backwards 4 yards, then drove him 4 more yards toward the sideline. If not for the terrific individual effort by the outside linebacker Robinson might still be running. Not all of Betts’ blocking reps looked like this, but it does demonstrate that his special physical tools should allow him to be a difference-maker in that area of the game if he buys into it.
Betts saw his most extensive playing time and his heaviest involvement of the season against Purdue, catching five passes for 36 yards. Nebraska tried to run another jet sweep with him but the middle linebacker read the play and shot the gap to tackle him for a loss of 2. Nebraska ran him across the field on shallow crosses a few times and Martinez hit him twice, once for a gain of 13 yards and once for a gain of 9. He picked up 10 yards on another short sit-down route.
The other catch is the last one we’ll focus on here: a tunnel screen. On second-and-7, he lined up off the line with Allen to his left.
Betts stepped up to the line as if he was going to run a route but curled back towards the middle of the field as Allen kicked out to block the cornerback lined up across from Betts. Meanwhile, Farniok, Cam Jurgens and Ethan Piper climbed to the second level looking for someone to block.
Vokolek drove the outside linebacker backwards as Betts caught the ball and turned up field.
At this point, based on the positioning of the defenders and the blockers, I’d argue Betts would have had a better chance at a big gain if he had cut it outside and tried to work up the sideline. I don’t know where exactly the play was designed to go or what Betts was told, though. He looked to attack up the hash marks as Piper grapples with the inside linebacker.
The inside ‘backer got off Piper’s block and, with the path ahead and to the inside cut off by other defenders, he wrapped up Betts.
Betts kept the legs churning and fell forward, picking up 6 yards on the plan.
There was one moment later in the game where Betts and Robinson lined up on the same side and essentially ran the same route, running up the numbers and bumping into each other. Martinez tried to hit Robinson but it fell incomplete. Robinson drew a pass interference penalty, but he didn’t appear happy with Betts after the play which leads me to believe it was the freshman who ran the wrong route.
Betts closed out his season against Minnesota with just one catch, a jet sweep that went nowhere as an unblocked safety blew up the play and dropped Betts at the line of scrimmage.
In total, Betts’ 12 touches came on six different play types: four jet sweeps, three short sit-down routes, two shallow crossing routes, one short come-back route, one short out route and one wide receiver screen. The Huskers also leveraged his speed to create openings for others as a couple of nine routes opened up underneath routes for Robinson (one of which went for a 27-yard gain, though a holding penalty wiped it away).
Nebraska didn’t ask too much of Betts in his first season as a Husker, but he showed some serious potential when he got his hands on the ball. Further mastery of the playbook, an expanded route tree and continued strength and conditioning development could turn Betts into a big-time weapon for Nebraska’s offense.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.