Saturday’s result in Ireland wasn’t want Nebraska was hoping for, but one bright spot from the 31-28 loss to Northwestern was the play of team captain and senior tight end Travis Vokolek.
Tight ends coach Sean Beckton spoke highly of both Austin Allen and Vokolek leading up to the 2021 season, describing them both as potential pros. Allen lived up to that billing during the season with a breakout season, earning Big Ten Tight End of the Year and parlaying that success into an opportunity to make the 53-man roster with the New York Giants.
Vokolek dealt with some injuries and limited usage, serving mostly as a blocking tight end when he was on the field. He caught 11 passes for 127 yards all season. With Allen gone now, however, Vokolek is the clear leader in that room (as well as the lone offensive captain) and the top option, and he showed on Saturday that he can do more than just block.
Vokolek caught five passes for 63 yards, matching his career high for catches and falling just 6 yards short of his career high for yards (both set at Rutgers before he transferred to Nebraska). An ankle injury cut his day short, but while he was out there Nebraska got him involved in a lot of different ways and showed what kind of weapon he can be for the offense this season.
“Travis made a lot of big catches and plays for us early on and his presence out there, his leadership his height over the middle definitely helps a lot,” quarterback Casey Thompson said. “His catch radius with his long arms definitely helps for sure.”
Vokolek’s first reception happened on the first drive of the game. Nebraska crossed midfield before slowing down, eventually facing a third-and-2 at the Northwestern 41 (just outside field goal range). Nebraska lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) with all three receivers to the left and Vokolek in-line to the right.
Vokolek ran a shallow crosser while the three receivers ran deeper routes, including the inside receiver slanting back across the middle of the field. The linebacker who initially picked up Vokolek passed him off as he cut to his left and instead dropped back with the receiver passing into his side of the field. The safety was supposed to pick up Vokolek, but he bit on Thompson’s pump fake to the deeper receiver, leaving the big tight end wide open.
Thompson put the ball on Vokolek and he turned upfield and picked up a few extra yards before two Wildcats took him down. He gained 9 yards to move the chains and put the Huskers within striking distance.
Nebraska scored on the very next play. Vokolek didn’t touch the ball, but he was still involved in the play. Thompson took a shot over the top to Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda up the right sideline after a double move and the transfer wideout came down with a tough contested catch. Garcia-Castaneda was one-on-one with the outside corner because, well, look at Vokolek.
His second catch was on a broken play. Remember the bad snaps? They returned, at least for one play. It looked like Trent Hixson was in a hurry to get to where the play was going and make his block, and his snap went wide because if it. Somehow, Thompson managed to deflect it up in the air and then catch it, immediately turning his eyes upfield searching for somewhere to go with the ball.
Vokolek started in-line to the left. We can’t really see his route from the TV angle, but it looked like Vokolek turned back, saw what happened and started breaking across the middle of the field. Thompson saw him and threw back across his body on the move (generally a no-no). However, Vokolek made him look good by attacking the ball and coming down with it.
On second-and-9, Vokolek gained 14 and moved the chains once again. The Huskers eventually punched the ball in from the 1 for another touchdown to cap off the drive.
Vokolek’s third catch come on the following possession. On third-and-10, Vokolek lined up to the right with one receiver on either side and Brody Belt motioning across the formation. Thompson dropped back and took a shot to Vokolek right up the middle.
Belt motioning behind Vokolek put the Northwestern defense in conflict. Belt occupied the linebacker to that side while the linebacker on the other side didn’t get deep enough, leaving a big pocket for Vokolek. Thompson took the shot and Vokolek made a nice catch, though he wasn’t able to keep his feet after spinning around to pull int he ball.
Still, the gain went for 21 yards and gave the Huskers a new set of downs. Nebraska gave the ball back with a fumble on the next play, but Vokolek still put the team in scoring range with another big play.
The Huskers started their next drive deep in their own territory. A loss on first down and a 9-yard gain on second set the Huskers up with a third-and-2 at their own 14-yard line. Nebraska lined up in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) with Vokolek motioning from the backfield to the left to the right slot, just outside Chancellor Brewington.
The two tight ends ran a combo route with Brewington running straight up field and Vokolek running a flat route underneath him. The linebacker to that side tried to chip Brewington, which left Vokolek unaccounted for. Thompson put it on him just before the hash marks and Vokolek finished the play strong, falling forward through the tackle for an extra yard.
Vokolek picked up 9 yards and gave the Huskers both a new set of downs and some breathing room.
After a four-catch first half, Nebraska went right to Vokolek on its first play of the second half. In 11 personnel, Vokolek lined up in the backfield to the left. Thompson sent Garcia-Castaneda in motion, then Vokolek followed after the snap.
Vokolek ran hard across the formation then slipped out into the flat instead of throwing a block. Thompson tossed it to him and Vokolek picked up 10 yards to get the third quarter off to a great start.
Vokolek made an impact beyond his touches as well. He threw key blocks on both of Anthony Grant’s rushing touchdowns. We’ll focus on the second one because his block was the one that sprung the whole play.
After a quick change of possession on a Northwestern fumble, Thompson took a deep shot to Trey Palmer that a Wildcat defender broke up. On second-and-10, Vokolek lined up in the backfield to the right side with trips receivers to the left.
After the snap, Vokolek crossed the formation to serve as a lead blocker, taking out the linebacker as Thompson handed the ball off to Grant. Vokolek’s block left Grant one-on-one with a defensive back, and Grant made him miss before running through a tackle attempt from the corner, Cameron Mitchell. From there, it was a race to the end zone, a race Grant won.
The Huskers lost Vokolek for the rest of the game on the following drive, and they really missed him in the fourth quarter. However, it sounds like the injury isn’t serious.
“I’ll be all right,” Vokolek said. “Just one of those things where you plant your foot in the ground and roll your ankle. Just a little ankle thing, but I’ll be fine. I feel great.”
That’s good news for the Huskers, who will need Vokolek on the field and making plays if they want this offense to reach its potential.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.