Something important Greg Smith noted yesterday in his reaction to 4-star wideout Latrell Neville committing to Nebraska: “Landing seven total wide receivers over the last two cycles balances out the numbers.” Nebraska is likely done with adding receivers to the 2021 class. The numbers being what they are, there are more pressing needs elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t content with where things stand at wideout.
Balance is a really good word to use.
Nebraska hasn’t had it for either of head coach Scott Frost’s first two seasons.
“When we came in as a coaching staff we only had four receivers on scholarship,” Frost said in December of 2019 during an Early Signing Period press conference. “We usually carry 10 or 11. That was a position just by numbers that we had to rebuild.”
That 2018 team began with Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman, Jaevon McQuitty, and Tyjon Lindsey as the only scholarship wideouts. Frost and Co. added 5-foot-8 Miles Jones, 5-foot-10 Mike Williams, 5-foot-11 Jaron Woodyard and 6-foot Andre Hunt to the equation after the first recruiting cycle. A 6-foot-1 Dominick Watt was expected but never arrived.
The 2019 cycle brought 5-foot-10 all-purpose star Wan’Dale Robinson, 6-foot speedsters Jamie Nance and Demariyon Houston and 6-foot-1 Washington product Darien Chase. Kanawai Noa, also 6-foot, joined as a grad transfer.
Throughout the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, the trio of Morgan, Spielman and Robinson combined for 225 receptions, 3,173 yards, and 22 touchdowns.
The other 10 scholarship wideouts on the ’18 and ’19 squads have produced a combined 45 catches, 565 yards, and two touchdowns.
Some of this is self-inflicted.
Nebraska hasn’t done well with the wideouts it inherited, and it either missed on or misused the receivers it added early. Spielman, McQuitty, and Lindsey have all transferred with remaining eligibility. Jones, Woodyard, and Chase have done the same.
Williams called out his usage on Twitter several weeks ago, saying he was played out of position for the entirety of his two-year career in Lincoln.
Which he was.
What choice did Nebraska really have, though?
When the staff arrived, they created some pretty hard-to-navigate positional redundancy in the wideout room. Once Morgan graduated following the 2018 season, Nebraska had how many slot receivers on its 2019 roster? Five? Six?
Nebraska relied on Noa and walk-on Kade Warner as outside guys, and played Spielman as an outside guy for most of his final year. It had three wideouts listed 6-2 or taller on last year’s roster, all three of them walk-ons, and none of them saw the field a single time. It just seemed like quarterback Adrian Martinez missed having Morgan, a guy he trusted enough to throw it up for. Morgan could create the kind of horizontal separation everyone desires, but he could also create it vertically. No other wideout on NU’s roster did both last year.
(This would be where we talk tight ends. Another day.)
Frost is young by coaching standards. The majority of his staff is as well. On your way up the hill, you live and learn; thinking a collection of quick, elusive wideouts would work within their offense at Nebraska makes sense when it worked at their previous stop. That was what they knew. This is the same coach who said “I’m hoping the Big Ten will have to adjust to us.” They’ve had their share of lessons learned since coming to Lincoln.
All of this is to be expected. People sometimes forget just how green a head coach Frost actually is.
Managing this wideout group is perhaps just another of those moments.
There’s a litany of reasons wideouts haven’t produced in this system to date, some of them outside of the wideouts’ control, and I could spend 100 words a guy explaining away the individual situations.
Now Nebraska seems to be moving in the right direction.
Under the guidance of new offensive coordinator and wideout coach Matt Lubick, the hope is Nebraska can better actualize the ones it brings in.
The 2020 and 2021 classes stand, as already noted, seven deep at the wideout position. Guys already on campus include 6-foot-4 Omar Manning and 6-foot-2 Zavier Betts. Shawn Hardy, standing 6-foot-3, and the aforementioned 6-foot-4 Neville will arrive next season.
Nebraska hasn’t ditched the little guy, though. It added Marcus Fleming (5-10) as well as Alante Brown and Will Nixon (both 5-11), guys who project as flex wideouts, but they make better sense when they have the complementary pieces.
A thread from one of our friends here at Hail Varsity that should help visualize:
So here’s what this #Huskers offense is designed to do. You will recognize all these plays (but perhaps not the execution). Having the pieces (which #Nebraska has not had) makes a big difference. (1 of 5) pic.twitter.com/BmrfGKRp0o
— Chaz in SoCal ❄️ (@Chaz_in_Socal) July 5, 2020
There’s data out there dispelling the notion bigger is better. Some of the NFL’s best are shorter guys. The Super Bowl champion Chiefs have a room led by 5-foot-10 Tyreek Hill. Tom Brady’s career in New England made the little guy trendy. Odell Beckham Jr. stands 5-foot-11.
But Wes Welker had Randy Moss. Hill has Travis Kelce.
While your No. 1 guy no longer has to be the traditional long-armed, jump-ball freak like Mike Evans or AJ Green, you still need those guys to balance out what you’re doing. If your No. 1 is a Wan’Dale Robinson type, a Z guy that works underneath and makes people miss in space, you still need the guy vertically stretching the coverage to open up that space.
“As coaches, we can’t scheme these guys open all the time,” Frost said after the Colorado game in 2019. Sometimes your guys have to go make something happen. NU’s didn’t threaten defenses over the top last year. Spielman’s best days were alongside Morgan with that exact kind of relationship, Morgan stressing the backend of the coverage and Spielman exploiting either the holes in zones or the slower guy on him.
The wideout room is finally starting to look like one that can produce that environment again. Kudos to the group for identifying a hole in the plan and patching it in short order. Troy Walters, Ryan Held, Travis Fisher, Sean Beckton, Barrett Ruud, and Matt Lubick all played key roles in flipping that room. What are the odds people are calling it “loaded” by 2021? Pretty good, I’d say.
Because it’s starting to make sense again. Starting to look balanced.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.