Nebraska Football Omar Manning
Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Nebraska’s WR Room: Still a Work in Progress, or Ready for Takeoff?

December 19, 2019

Pending any possible attrition to the room, Nebraska will enter the 2020 season with a scholarship wideout group that features one senior with 177 career catches, two juniors with two career catches, one sophomore with 40 career catches, three redshirt freshmen with zero career catches, and three true freshmen (with, obviously, zero career catches).

Scott Frost and staff are responsible for bringin eight of those wideouts to Lincoln.

The remodeling of the Huskers’ wide receiver room is arguably one of the most drastic projects this new coaching staff has undertaken in their first three recruiting cycles, and its pay-off in 2020 might be one of the heaviest influencers on offensive success.

“That’s one position where we needed to improve,” Frost said Wednesday at a press conference where the head coach announced the addition of the early-signing portion of a 2020 recruiting class that featured two 4-star receiver prospects from the high school ranks and a 4-star junior college prospect that anyone and everyone wanted.

“When you look at that position, just being honest, when we came in as a coaching staff we only had four receivers on scholarship,” Frost said. “We usually carry 10 or 11. That was a position just by numbers that we had to rebuild. We feel good about this class and where it’s going to take us.”

An interesting question to consider moving forward into winter conditioning, spring ball and then summer workouts is this: what is fair to expect of this group of receivers over the next year? Is it fair to say this group, an even younger one on the whole than last year’s, has to pick up the level of play? Is it fair to ask a Marcus Fleming or an Alante Brown to play right away and make any kind of impact? Is it even fair to think they’ll see the field?

Nebraska added three wideouts from the high school ranks in the 2019 class as well—Darien Chase, Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston—and even early-enrolled Nance, but got nothing from the trio. Nance played in one game, late in the win at Maryland, and Chase played in four. Houston didn’t see the field.

Even though Nebraska needed something else from wideout—what with Wan’Dale Robinson in and out of the lineup, grad transfer Kanawai Noa going in and out of the gameplan, and JD Spielman playing out of position—the Huskers kept a conservative approach to playing the youngsters and kept an eye toward the future. Conventional wisdom says the redshirt freshmen trio is the more likely group to be a factor. Will that actually be the case, though?

We’ll have to wait to find out, but Frost clearly likes the haul at the position.

On Fleming, a 4-star from Florida and arguably one of the fastest football players in the country, Frost said: “He can really go. He played on one of the best teams in Florida and was one of their stars. They won a state championship. You talk about a kid who oozes his love for football. He just loves being out there, and I think if you asked him to play on a parking lot cement track, he’d go out and play football. He has a chance to help us and help us quick.”

On Brown, another 4-star Nebraska signed on Signing Day and the top-ranked prep-schooler in the country, Frost said: “Getting Alante Brown, late, was big for us too. He’s kind of the same type of guy. I think he can carry that ball for us, play inside, play outside. He changes direction really well and has really good hands. But he’s also physical.”

On Will Nixon, a 3-star from Texas, Frost said: “I love coaches’ kids, and his dad is a coach at Baylor. Baylor did an unbelievable job this year. Jeff [Nixon] is his dad. I think he’s already starting to learn our offense because of what Jeff knows about it. I think he’s a guy that could play multiple spots for us, inside receiver, outside receiver, running back, a bunch of different places. I think he’s going to pick it up fast. We’re excited about him.

On the group as a whole, Frost said: “I think we did a lot to upgrade that position.”

And they did, at least on paper. The star of the group figures to be Manning, a 6-foot-4 monster of a receiver from Kilgore College in Texas. Manning caught 50 passes in two years at JUCO and averaged 20.6 yards each on those catches. He’s a big-play waiting to happen and that big-bodied receiver everyone was clamoring for throughout the season.

Manning theoretically makes everything else fit. He comes ready to roll. He makes it so Spielman can go back to working the underneath stuff that made him a third-down nightmare for defenses a couple seasons ago. He makes it so Nebraska can slow-play its younger receivers. He makes it so Adrian Martinez has that guy again who he can just throw a jump ball up to.

“Omar I’m excited about,” Frost said. “All year we kind of wished we were a little more productive at our outside receiver spot. That’s one place where we thought we wanted a kind of guy that could come in and potentially help us right away. There wasn’t a better guy in the country, in my opinion, for what we were looking for than him. He looks different than anybody I’ve ever coached and has tape to match. I’m really excited to get him. He’s got a little work to do yet before he gets to campus, but I think he has a chance to change our offense.”

Think Big Ten Newcomer of the Year potential. Manning fits that well.

But, of course, the puzzle can lose its clarity again quickly if Nebraska were to lose one of its two proven commodities in the room. Rumors ran rampant after the year ended that Spielman was looking elsewhere. He’s eligible to enter the draft, and he’s already put enough on film to convince someone to draft him in the middle rounds. He’s also not technically a Frost guy.

Unprompted, Frost ended any speculation.

“JD has been a phenomenal player around here for a long time,” he said. “We’re lucky to have him back another season. I’m excited to coach a guy who could be the all-time leading receiver in Nebraska history and have a piece of that as a coach. I’m really impressed with his toughness and what he’s done for his entire career at Nebraska.”

I asked him what was safe to expect of the room as a whole in 2020. That was how he began his answer.

He used 431 words to answer the question and technically didn’t answer it, at least not in a literal sense. I’m not complaining, because, in a roundabout way, he confirmed what I considered to be true. It’s clearly a position he’s thought a great deal about, clearly a position group the entire staff has thought a great deal about. If Manning wasn’t No. 1 on their board, he was as close to it as anyone else. Fleming and Brown provide the traditional speed this offense needs. Nixon adds the versatility. (And none of this is to mention walk-ons like Kade Warner or Ty Hahn, both of whom the Huskers really like.)

Nebraska will rely on newcomers and youth at wide receiver in a manner not too dissimilar to last season. The hope is the result this time around is different. Not by blind faith, but through a tweak of the process. Frost and Co. saw the weakness and adjusted. The room is now almost entirely composed of their guys.

That might mean things are still in the developmental stage. Or it might mean the group is now primed for takeoff. I’d say Frost is eager to find out.

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