In total, Nebraska’s new coaching staff added 39 new scholarship players in the 2023 recruiting class. This puts the program’s scholarship numbers over triple digits in spring camp. With winter workouts ongoing and spring ball likely to impact who stands out to this coaching staff, Hail Varsity is taking a deeper look at what each position looks like right now.
Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers.
Intrigue, lost production, potential and new faces. Nebraska’s current tight ends group has it all. There’s also indication the unit will play a critical role in Marcus Satterfield’s offense.
Up top, it’s worth noting who won’t return in 2023. Nebraska’s top two tight ends in receiving yards, both in the top eight of team receiving yards last year, exhausted their eligibility. Travis Vokolek and Chancellor Brewington are now off to the NFL Draft. Vokolek entered the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and received an invitation to the NFL Combine. Brewington didn’t receive any such invitations but could utilize Nebraska’s Pro Day to raise his stock. The date for that Pro Day has yet to be released.
This new Nebraska coaching staff brought in a few new faces. None with more acclaim than former LSU and Georgia standout Arik Gilbert. He was the highest-rated tight end recruit out of high school and played well at LSU. Gilbert signed with LSU in 2020 as a 6-foot-5, 253-pound prospect and caught 35 passes for 368 yards in Baton Rouge. Personal reasons kept him off the field for most of the last two seasons. He had just two catches in limited time last season. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart spoke highly of him at the time and encouraged Georgia fans to lend their support. Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule lent his support during his National Signing Day press conference.
“I think there is a lot of talent there, but with a lot of these guys there is a lot of talent,” Rhule said. “We just have harness it and help them develop it. Get them on the field, get them to trust us and then turn them loose.”
Potentially, Nebraska could start two of the former top tight end recruits in the country in 2023. Coaches decided to rest Thomas Fidone completely in 2022, leaving him with just one game of experience in two years. The Council Bluffs native returns for 2023 fully healed. He’s participated fully in winter workouts and, frankly, looks like a top-level tight end. With competition for a starting tight end position wide open, Fidone could seize his opportunity this spring. The only other tight end returning in 2023 who’s already made noteworthy contributions is Nate Boerkircher. The Aurora native finished with six catches for 52 yards and a touchdown last year. He joined the team as a walk-on and played in just three games across two years before playing in every game last season. His role could expand this spring and into the fall.
Of the other returning tight ends, Omaha Burke graduate Chris Hickman and Creighton Prep graduate AJ Rollins both played in at least three games last year. Papillion-La Vista graduate and walk-on Luke Lindenmeyer played against No. 3 Michigan in his first collegiate season. Norris graduate James Carnie appeared in just two games across his first two seasons at Nebraska. Brodie Tagaloa, Chase Androff and Lincoln High graduate John Goodwin did not appear in any games at all last season. It’s unclear who among them could emerge for larger roles in the new offense.
The coaching staff also brought in two high school additions. Ismael Smith Flores from Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, and Bellevue West’s Cayden Echertnach will join the team’s tight end room. Tight ends coach Bob Wager coached Smith Flores at Martin and Echternach arrives in Lincoln as a walk on. Both are likely developmental projects for this coaching staff so their best output could come down the road.
“It’s all about building a relationship with these guys right now,” Wager said last week. “That’s the phase we’re in. My early impressions are I look forward to seeing them every single day, I can’t wait to have the opportunity to coach them. But more importantly I can’t wait to have the opportunity to build a lifelong relationship with the guys that I coach.”
There’s a strong probability this position is crucial to offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield. He liked using tight ends in his previous stops coaching alongside Rhule. Tight ends Jaheim Bell and Austin Stogner both eclipsed 200 yards receiving in Satterfield’s offense at South Carolina last year. They were two of the team’s top five receivers. Rhule shared his admiration for Satterfield’s handling of tight ends at the end of last season. The head coach typically makes his coaches rank playmakers in their respective groups. He wants playmakers to make sure they get on the field. That’s what Satterfield did at South Carolina when he needed to and, statistically, it ended in one of the biggest two-game SEC performances in program history.
“He used who he had,” Rhule said. “I think we’ll find that there is enough talent to go out there and play complementary football.”
Satterfield confirmed the Huskers will huddle and use a pro-style offense in Lincoln. That involves a lot of buzz words that Husker fans enjoy.
“We’re going to use tight ends and we’re going to use a fullback,” Satterfield said. Which tight ends are left in Lincoln and which ones rank high among playmakers is yet to be determined.