Nebraska's Receiver Problem May Have a Tight End Solution
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s Receiver Problem May Have a Tight End Solution

October 03, 2019

Playing Ohio State had something to do with this, but a Nebraska receiver didn’t catch a ball until late in the third quarter Saturday. It was JD Spielman, who picked up 7 yards. It would be his only catch of the night. At that point in the game, the Buckeyes were up 48-0. “Unacceptable,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters called it Wednesday. 

Entering the game Spielman had at least two catches in each of his 25 career appearances at Nebraska. He’s on pace to become the only Nebraska player in school history to have 50 catches in three different seasons. Limiting him to that minuscule a contribution in future games is going to be difficult for any defense. 

But Ohio State accomplished it, and it highlighted one of Nebraska’s glaring weaknesses so far as an offense: if Spielman isn’t rolling, Nebraska doesn’t have a ton of other answers at receiver. 

It should be no coincidence then that two-tight-end sets have grown in usage in recent weeks. 

Junior Jack Stoll and sophomore Austin Allen have shared the field together in 31-of-65 snaps against Northern Illinois, 30-of-95 snaps against Illinois (minus three kneel-downs) and then 17-of-56 snaps against Ohio State.

“Going forward we’re going to have a package always to play two tight ends in the game plan,” tight ends coach Sean Beckton said. “It’s going to be the same way this week and the rest of the season. Hopefully those guys start showing up a little more. They’re working their tails off, I know that.

“We’ve always had two-tight-end sets, even when we were at UCF. We just want to expand it a little more because, really, Austin Allen and Jack, they’ve played at a high level. Those guys are playing at a really high level. Coach [Scott] Frost comes in every Sunday and critiques every position and he’s really been impressed with the tight ends as far as everything they’re doing.”

The numbers aren’t there yet — Stoll leads everyone with 10 catches for 153 yards, Allen has three catches for 15 yards and Kurt Rafdal has one for 9 — but Beckton says his group consistently grades out really well. A 1.5 score for him is a “winning” grade and Stoll and Allen have been around 2.0. The goal now is to just get them involved a little more in the passing game. 

“Certain reads on the offense are dictated on the play-action,” Beckton said. “Sometimes they’re the first read and sometimes they’re the second read. Sometimes the ball may be snapped a little bit high. All 11 have got to do their job. It’s not just the quarterback, or the offensive linemen. There are some situations where the snap may be just a little bit off and the quarterback maybe has to go to a second or third read. We’ve got to do a better job of getting all 11 playing on the same page and we’re going to execute a lot better as an offense.”

Allen said whereas last year and early on this season Nebraska was mostly running out of bigger sets, now Frost is starting to trust the tight ends in passing concepts more. 

“I think Coach Frost’s getting to a point to where we can run all of our offense out of two-tight-end formations,” he said. “We know it. I think he’s getting to that point to where we can do anything.”

Austin’s development has a lot to do with that. 

Nebraska is missing Stanley Morgan Jr., a big-bodied receiver who Adrian Martinez trusted immensely in jump-ball situations during his freshman season. With Morgan having graduated, Kanawai Noa not being able to make an impact and the rest of Nebraska’s receivers standing under 6-feet, Walters says that has been a very real issue for them. 

“To ask a 5-6, 5-7 guy to run a deep route to throw a jump ball is asking him to do probably something he can’t do,” Walters said. “Asking a bigger guy to catch a screen and work some interior moves, that’s probably not the best decision. So we’ve got to find roles, find what guys do best and try to highlight them the best that we can.”

Allen, a 6-foot-8 guy, could be the answer. Beckton calls him the “signal guy” and a student of the game. Allen has taken it upon himself to take freshman tight end Chris Hickman under his wing and teach him the ropes. When it comes to his understanding of the offense, Allen’s taken one of the bigger leaps on the team.

“This spring was a big one for me, personally,” he said. “With Jack being hurt, I took a lot of the ones reps and that allowed me to take a big step. Kurt, he’s a great football player, [but] I think I took a big step over him in the fall, which has allowed me to play a little bit more in the two-tight-end formations.”

Simply looking more at Allen and Stoll isn’t going to solve every receiver problem — Walters clearly feels his guys are doing too much dancing at the line of scrimmage and not getting enough separation in their routes — but even Stoll at 6-foot-4 can alleviate some of those deep-threat concerns. 

Just throwing him the ball and seeing what happens usually ends well with Stoll. Think back to that one-handed snag and run after the catch he had against Illinois on a big third down. Think about that first drive against South Alabama in the opener.

Walters said Nebraska may just have to force-feed a few wideouts, but moving forward, that might apply to tight ends as well. If the last few weeks are any indication, there should be plenty of opportunity.

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