Nebraska's Used JD Spielman as a Slot Receiver Lately
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Used JD Spielman as a Slot Receiver Lately, Thankfully

November 09, 2019

Is it a coincidence Nebraska put JD Spielman in the slot more over the last few games and Spielman has caught fire?

After a three-week stretch in which the junior wideout had six combined catches for 85 yards, Spielman moved over into the slot, sophomore Kade Warner took his spot out wide, and Spielman has 220 yards on 11 catches in the two games since. 

A handful of times in recent weeks, Nebraska has put two, sometimes three, to one side of the field, and run divide. Against Indiana, it resulted in a 34-yard completion to seldom-used senior Mike Williams. Against Purdue, Nebraska got Spielman on the first play of the game for 40 yards and then found him again on a similar concept in the fourth quarter for another 42 yards.  

Nebraska has, all season really, had to try and work around positional redundancy in the wideout room. Spielman, Wan’Dale Robinson, Mike Williams, Jaron Woodyard and Miles Jones all play almost the exact same position. Nebraska had 6-foot sophomore Andre Hunt, who figured to factor heavily into things this season, get suspended before the year began. Six-foot, 200-pound Jaevon McQuitty, the guy many thought was Stanley Morgan Jr.’s replacement when he enrolled, hasn’t yet made an impact at Nebraska. Three freshmen wideouts over 6-feet haven’t seen much playing time. 

When Warner fractured a bone in his foot in fall camp, Nebraska was thrust behind the eight-ball. The only bigger-bodied receiver the Huskers were comfortable throwing out there was Cal grad transfer Kanawai Noa. That meant the 5-foot-9 Spielman had to play out wide. 

Spielman’s been fine, by his standards, and he’s only five yards off last year’s 818-yards-in-10-games pace, but he’s gone long stretches this season where he seems to just disappear from the action. Whereas he had at least 55 catches in each of his first two seasons, Spielman is on pace for 47 this year. 

That yardage is still there, as Spielman’s been a lot more boom-or-bust (career-high 19.7 yards a catch), but his season suggests Nebraska has either struggled to figure out how best to use him without Morgan or its hand has been forced. 

He’s only got one receiving touchdown this season. 

In hindsight, the coaching staff’s continued mentioning of Warner hinted at excitement over something more than just another quarterback-trusted wideout. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Warner didn’t make his debut until the Ohio State game, but he was slowly eased into the fold. These last two games have featured heavy Warner snaps, and, by extension, heavy slot snaps for Spielman. 

Nebraska has had its two best passing performances, in terms of output, since Sept. 21. There are other factors here—quality of defense, offensive line play, etc.—because the aerial attack went for 290, 287, and 328 against Colorado, Northern Illinois, and Illinois to close out the September slate of games and it didn’t have a healthy Warner or a slot-able Spielman in any of those, but in trying to find any kind of positive heading into the last three games, anything at all to try and build upon, this is something. 

The appeal is obvious. Nebraska wants to do the same thing to opponents that opponents are doing to them: isolate mismatches. Spielman in the slot is a problem for defensive coordinators because he’s smart enough to find the soft spots in zones and he’s entirely too quick for most linebackers. Which brings extra attention. Which makes things easier for guys elsewhere. This was the plan. 

Also, and not to be glossed over, this kind of deep-ball success without a run game speaks to schematic success, doesn’t it?

Over the last five games, Nebraska’s running backs (factoring in Robinson here since the vast majority of his carries are of the between-the-tackles variety) have earned 445 yards on 177 carries. That’s 2.5 yards a carry. For context, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor has exactly 177 carries this season and he’s run for 1009 yards. Taylor has 15 scores on those 177 carries. Nebraska’s backs have five. 

Nebraska’s ground game has become entirely dependent on the quarterback run. 

That defenses at this point know that and are still getting beat over the top by Spielman and Co. isn’t a coincidence. It’ll be interesting to see if the Husker offense can keep this up over its final three games. A bowl probably depends on it. 

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