Offensive coordinator and wideout coach Troy Walters says the Husker offense is still another year of recruiting away from having the athletic profile the coaching staff wants. The starters are in place, but there are questions with the depth. The focus for this recruiting cycle was speed, which Walters added a ton of to his room with guys like Wan’Dale Robinson, Jamie Nance and Demariyon “Peanut” Houston.
But Nebraska’s biggest problem last year with its collection of wideouts (after Stanley Morgan Jr. and J.D. Spielman) wasn’t quickness, it was physicality.
This Husker staff has a saying on offense: “No block, no rock.”
There’s a reason why Nebraska shuffled through No. 3 options all throughout the 2018 season without ever landing squarely on one player. There’s a reason why when Walters walked into his meeting room on Day 1 this spring and asked his group to hold up a hand if they’d scored a touchdown for the Huskers, only one guy put his arm up (not the main reason but you get the point). When Nebraska coaches talk about wanting consistency from the wideout room, they’re talking about blocking on the edge.
“They understand that this offense really goes when we’re able to block the perimeter, when we’re able to have a run play or a bubble or something built into it and if we can get the ball on the perimeter to our playmakers and we can block the perimeter, that’s free yards,” Walters said. “That’s deflating to a defense when you can just throw a little screen out there and get 10, 12, 15 yards on it. So, guys understand the importance, that big plays come because of receivers blocking downfield.”
Which is why the first drill of the first day of spring practice, receivers worked on blocking.
Mike Williams, a senior who made his way to Nebraska last year by way of East Mississippi Community College, is probably the first name that jumps to mind for many. He showed flashes last season, as Walters put it, with two starts early on and 12 catches for 122 yards on the season. But his workload faded because he couldn’t build trust with the coaching staff.
He knows that.
“I could improve in the blocking game, which would’ve gotten me more playing time,” Williams said.
To most on the team, the 5-foot-9 Williams is one of the strongest, pound-for-pound. Physicality shouldn’t be an issue. It’s about mentally committing to the dirty work when you aren’t touching the football. Morgan was great at that; it’s one of the reasons he was so successful, coaches just never took him off the field. Walters knows Williams has that same kind of every down ability.
He said as much during the first week of spring ball, when assistants met with media for extended sit-downs.
“He’s got to be consistent play in and play out,” Walters said then. “He’s got to be more physical in the run game. That was kind of a limitation last year early on. He just didn’t block as well as he needed to on the perimeter and so you’re just kind of reluctant to play him. … He’s fast. He has all the tools to be an explosive playmaker at this level, he’s just got to bring it day by day and be more consistent and if he does that, he’s going to help this team out tremendously.”
And he said the same again Monday after the first practice of Week 2 wrapped.
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“He’s kind of like Tyreek Hill,” Walters said. “Mike’s a smaller guy, but he’s explosive. … When he plays fast, he’s a good football player. A lot of times, though, I don’t know if he’s indecisive… When he just cuts it loose and there’s no fear of failure, he’s a good receiver. He’s just got to do it consistently.”
Which is the goal for Williams this season.
Because, even though he’s a senior, there are guys around that will take his job.
“We have a ton of talent around JD [Spielman],” Scott Frost said a week ago. “I don’t need those guys to be All-Americans over night, but I just want to see them improve. Woody and Mike, Andre Hunt, some of the young guys with Nance and Wan’Dale. There’s a lot of guys that I’m not even mentioning that have the opportunity to take the next step forward and be those guys for us. That’s one of the jobs that’s wide open.”
Jaevon McQuitty, a third-year sophomore, and Jaron “Woody” Woodyard, a senior, are two others who seem likely to challenge for serious snaps next to Spielman.
Walters says he and McQuitty met after 2018 ended and the receiver admitted it served him well sitting and watching. “He admitted he needed the year just to see the speed,” Walters said. Coming off a knee injury that cost him all of 2017, McQuitty is still getting confidence back in his knee and his game. For him, it’s about learning the playbook and growing as a route runner. At 6-feet, 205 pounds, he absolutely has the frame to be the same kind of blocker Morgan was, and if that’s the case, Nebraska thinks he can be a factor in 2019.
Woodyard was “processing everything” last season and that slowed him down on the field, Walters says. With another offseason to learn the ins and outs of the offseason, the expectation is that he can play faster and more instinctually in 2019.
Nance, a freshman from Oklahoma who Walters called “one of the more explosive guys that we have on the team," is learning like every other freshman, but has already added eight to 10 pounds of weight since he arrived at Nebraska. (Walters says he was 155 when he got on campus).
There’s a tendency to think of this offense as all speed, no power, especially at the skill positions. That’s not really the case when you get down to it. This is a staff that wants its players to be physically ready and willing to run to any fight. Even Walters.
“One of the things I challenged the receivers on in the meeting room [at the start of spring ball] was we didn’t have enough guys playing on special teams,” he said. “When we were at UCF and we were successful, we had receivers running down on kicks, covering punts, returning punts. We need more involvement from the receivers in the special teams aspect.”
Do the dirty work. That’s what gets guys on the field. Track speed isn’t enough, because practically every guy in Walters’ room has track speed. Spielman, Walters says, sets the tone in practice when it comes to blocking. Warner does, too.
Block for your teammates and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to make sure your arm is up in the air next spring when Walters asks who has a touchdown.
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.