Tight end is one of the few position groups at Nebraska that didn’t lose a single contributor from last season, which means this offseason was all about building off of what they did in Year 1. That started in the weight room, and early returns are good.
“I like where they are mentally and also physically right now,” tight ends coach Sean Beckton said during Week 2 of fall camp. “Obviously the weight room has paid off for all of them across the board, even Chris Hickman, a freshman that just got here. You can tell from the spring and to where he is today, as far as the strength factor with him. Obviously he’s got to pick up a little bit of weight but across the board those guys are playing with a lot more physicality and a lot more grit. That’s been one of the things we’re emphasizing throughout this training camp, a little bit more grit and fight as a team and I think so far those guys have stepped up and done that.”
Hickman enrolled early and got a mental head start on making the transition to college football, but recovery from a high school injury prevented him from taking part in spring ball. Travis Vokolek, the transfer from Rutgers, is an important long-term addition, though he’ll have to sit out this season.
The other newcomer isn’t really a newcomer as he’s heading into his second year in Lincoln, but redshirt freshman Katerian LeGrone only played in three games last season and recorded one each for 8 yards.
“The biggest thing is he’s playing a lot faster in the offensive scheme,” Beckton said about the 6-foot-3, 245-pound LeGrone. “On offense, he knows what’s going on and now he’s letting his athleticism and the development he’s gained over the summer as far as the strength and speed has really, really improved his game. He’s a lot leaner as far as his body type now so he can run longer and he’s in better condition, so he’s starting to produce for us.”
Still, the core of that room is the three guys who played the majority of the snaps last season — starter Jack Stoll, a junior, and redshirt sophomore towers Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. Increasing the tight ends’ production is certainly one of the coaching staff’s goals heading into 2019, but Beckton wants to see more than just catches from that trio.
“Those guys are doing extremely well,” Beckton said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and emphasis on those guys being more leaders as a team and also as a position group. Really, offense, defense and special teams we need more leaders as a whole, across the board, for our team to be more successful.”
One player who has been a pleasant surprise in that area for Beckton? Allen, the 6-foot-8 tight end from Aurora, Nebraska.
“He’s really been more vocal, really helped some of the young guys — not necessarily the tight ends, but across the board, across the team,” Beckton said. “He’s really stepped his game up and really, really encouraged guys and also, when things aren’t going well, getting on the entire team — offense, special teams and defense — to really, really try to increase the attitude and effort on the football team.”
Allen spent most of his snaps last season as a blocker. He caught just two passes, though he did turn those receptions into 54 yards. With a year in the system under his belt, Allen said he feels ready to make a bigger impact.
“Last year there were a lot of times, going into camp, where there were stressful situations and I was like ‘Oh gosh, what am I going to do? I’ve got to know what I’m going to do right now.’ This fall camp, there’s no stress,” Allen said. “[Strength and conditioning coach Zach] Duval got us right this summer. We worked even harder than we did last summer. There’s no stress, so we can go out there now and just know what we’ve got to do and dial in on our technique and that’s really helped me just have no fear out there.”
When Allen arrived on campus, he was listed at 210 pounds. He;s gained more than 40 pounds since then and the added strength has played a big a part on Austin’s growth as his familiarity with the offense.
“Right now, I think he’s probably about 255,” Beckton said. “He’s kind of hovering between 250 and 255 and I’d like to try to keep him right in there in that range, try to keep him lean but also increase his strength levels. The biggest thing we’ve noticed as a whole staff is how strong he’s gotten physically. He’s playing better with his hands and playing with a lot better pad level. At 6-8, it was tough trying to get your body in the right position as far as leverage and he’s done a good job as far as understanding that. He spent a lot of time this summer critiquing himself; there are some individual drills that we had him look at to really, really get himself honed and he’s playing with a lot better base and a lot better physicality right now.”
Allen said his primary focus this offseason was on attacking defensive linemen, and the added muscle and improved leverage has helped with that.
“Last year I felt myself a lot stepping up the line in run fits,” Allen said. “Now I’m going to strike you and get into my fit, I’m going to drive you and get into my fit. That was the biggest part I’ve been trying to work on.”
Allen said Nebraska has been using a lot more two-tight end sets in practice. For that to translate to the games, the coaches need to see more out of the guys behind Stoll, and midway through fall camp, it seems like Allen is making a strong push for more playing time in 2019.