Two transfer portals, winter workouts and an entire spring season have passed. There’s now a clearer picture for Nebraska’s scheme and personnel. Hail Varsity is taking a closer look at what we’ve learned about each position now that the spring season is over and the portal is closed.
Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers.
The Nebraska tight end room stood out before spring ball. With two former No. 1 recruits at the position and big body depth, offensive imagination ran wild. At the end of spring ball, the position offers just as much to the imagination but with a few twists.
Thomas Fidone and Nate Boerkircher return to headline the tight end group. Arik Gilbert, the former LSU and Georgia tight end, brings promise. Coaches moved Jake Appleget and Janiran Bonner into the room. Redshirt freshman Chase Androff adds additional depth. Texas native Ismael Smith Flores will join the position later this month as part of the 2023 recruiting class.
The spring season showed how much this coaching staff values the position. Tight end coach Bob Wager brought an eye for detail to coach the finer points of Nebraska’s tight ends. The competitive group worked off each other, welcomed in new faces and saw some move to other positions on the team. What’s left over is a diverse group that can adapt within offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s offense.
“In a three-month period of time we learned a great deal,” tight end coach Bob Wager said last month. “It’s a highly competitive room. They reach for each other, they form a great bond with one another, and they’re eager to be developed and eager to get better. I’m proud of the way they’ve immersed themselves into the playbook and proud of the way they come out to compete every day.”
Tight ends showed their importance blocking during the Red-White Game. Fidone (6-foot-6, 235 pounds) and Gilbert (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) imposed their immense stature on the outside to block edge rushers and linebackers. In one play, Gilbert gave a glancing block at the first level and stuck his second-level block to open a modest running lane on the outside. The Huskers occasionally worked out of 12 personnel and group two tight ends on the strong side or split outside the two tackles. They pulled opposite to draw linebackers away and towards the play to create additional running lanes with momentum.
Part of the value in a diverse tight end personnel allows them to step into other positions. As noted in the running backs reset, Janiran Bonner moved from wide receiver to tight end this spring. He’s classified as a tight end can move into the hybrid fullback role. Bonner showed his aggression in the run game not only with carries (three carries for 12 yards) but in becoming the lead blocker and eating second-level stunts. Head coach Matt Rhule and Wager mentioned the benefits of cross training in the spring. That forces defenses to adjust and try to match up against big bodies who are both physical and mobile.
Quarterback Jeff Sims’ first pass of the spring game went to tight end Boerkircher. It was a seam route down the left hash and the Aurora native went for 38 yards, the game’s biggest play. Sims said afterwards that was his favorite play from the spring and gave him confidence. He saw Boerkircher get open and simply put the ball on the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder. It’s noteworthy a throw to a tight end can build a quarterback’s confidence and help him settle in the pocket. Nebraska’s tight ends didn’t always slide into the secondary on designed passes and would sometimes stay on the line to pick up blitzes. But a big target that can block on the edge and move into the second level opens offensive play calling possibilities.
Boerkircher actually led the spring game in receiving yards, mostly on the 38-yard toss from Sims. Bonner added an 11-yard catch, John Goodwin made two catches for 14 yards and Fidone had one catch for 4 yards. The Council Bluffs native received an ovation from Husker fans following his only catch. Head coach Matt Rhule limited Fidone at points in the spring, which the sophomore pushed back on. He finished the spring without restrictions although the staff limited his targets in the spring game.
The Huskers tested an offensive set in the spring game with just the five offensive linemen, two players split on both sides of them and a running back aligned next to the quarterback. Two Husker receivers on one side were stacked. On the other side, a receiver and Fidone stood four yards apart with Fidone on the line inside. The running back motioned to the outside towards Fidone and became the outside receiver. That means the defense had to almost instantaneously account for a running back, receiver and tight end all on the same side of the field. So opposing defenses have to account for potential mismatches like that against Nebraska and its multi-faceted tight end group.