Once viewed as a strength of the Nebraska football program before the spring, the tight end room is all of the sudden looking thin after nine spring practices.
Of the five scholarship tight ends that are in Lincoln—Travis Vokolek, Thomas Fidone II, Chris Hickman, James Carnie and AJ Rollins—three aren’t practicing in Vokolek, Fidone and Hickman. Chase Androff, the lone tight end recruit in the 2022 class, will join the team this summer. Vokolek isn’t a surprise as head coach Scott Frost told the media on Feb. 28 the veteran would be limited this spring as he rehabs a shoulder injury. He’s expected to be back for fall practice.
“I’m coming along,” Vokolek said on Feb. 28. “The shoulder is getting better. Doing drills, staying out of the contact stuff, that’s it. I’m really working on technique, footwork and just trying to be the best leader on the offense and in the tight end room.”
But last Thursday, the same day Frost said receiver Zavier Betts wasn’t on the team anymore, Frost added that Fidone, Hickman and walk-on Chancellor Brewington weren’t practicing either. Fidone, the highly-touted second-year player who figured to play a key role in the tight end room this season, has missed time with an injury.
“I’m not going to comment yet until we know the extent and details of everything,” Frost said of Fidone. “So when the time is appropriate, I will.”
Fidone suffered a knee injury last April, but after attacking the rehab process was able to see limited reps late in the season against Wisconsin. It seems the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Fidone has suffered another setback, and his availability will be pushed back again.
Injuries have left Sean Beckton’s room short on bodies who are able to be full participants during an important spring in which new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple is installing his own twist on things. Vokolek and the rest of the tight ends can obviously still study the playbook and be right there on the practice field watching and listening, but having Vokolek and everyone else run and hit and block would be ideal.
However, there are players in the program who the coaches need to see this spring, and those who they don’t. Vokolek lands with the latter. The 6-6, 260-pounder his entering his sixth year of college football. The former transfer from Rutgers has been around, knows how college football works and learned from a record-breaking player in Austin Allen. Vokolek is one of the few on the offense who the coaches would be OK with missing spring if it meant he’d be closer to 100% healthy for the fall.
“We got certain guys who you don’t need to see hit much and some other guys that we really need to test them and see how they’re going to be when it’s live,” Frost said on March 9.
Behind Vokolek, new faces will get the opportunity to emerge with both Hickman and Brewington on the mend. They’re all in-state products, too, in Carnie (Norris), Rollins (Creighton Prep) and walk-ons Nate Boerkircher (Aurora), Evan Meyersick (Millard West), Jacob Herbek (Grand Island Central Catholic) and John Goodwin (Lincoln High).
On Thursday Frost went out of his way to mention Boerkircher. The 6-4, 220-pounder is another former Aurora Husky, like Allen. Along with Hickman and Brewington, Boerkircher was one of the tight ends who got game reps against Buffalo when Allen briefly left after getting dinged up. That was also a game where Vokolek was out with injury.
“We need some of those guys to step up obviously,” Frost said. “James and AJ and Boerkircher, we’ll probably highlight Bork right now, he’s doing a really good job. And we need some guys to step up at that spot. So those guys are certainly getting reps with Travis out for the spring, and they need them and they’re taking advantage of them.”
Boerkircher played in just three games last year and caught two passes for 14 yards. One came against Buffalo and the other Northwestern in garbage time:
“He just came on, never said a word when he first got here, he’s done a really good job in the weight room getting his body better,” Frost said of Boerkircher. “He’s just continued to improve. He’s doing good things in the run game and pass game right now.”
As Norris Titan fans know, the 6-5, 230-pound Carnie is a pass-catching tight end with speed to burn. All young players have things they need to work on, and for Carnie, it’s his strength and run blocking. Last October, Beckton spoke about Carnie and the learning curve the players in his room went through in their first seasons in Lincoln.
“I’m down in the weight room sometimes, just to check on those guys and see how hard they’re working,” Beckton said. “Early on, I didn’t feel he was working hard enough in the weight room. I kind of put a little nudge on him, and he’s really progressed. You can see it now in the way he strikes and he’s a lot more confident in what he’s doing.”
The same goes for the 6-6, 230-pound Rollins, who was a multi-sport standout at Creighton Prep, excelling on the football field and basketball court. While Carnie is likely more comfortable running routes and catching passes, Rollins might feel more at home next to an offensive tackle and run blocking.
“One of the things that stood out was he was very tenacious at the point of attack,” Beckton said of Rollins in October. “He’d drive people out of bounds 10 yards, just had that mentality. He’s more of a thumper, more of an in-line. But he has the qualities to go out and catch passes. He’s a natural striker.”
At 6-6 and 230 pounds, Androff fits the mold of a Big Ten tight end but will continue to work on his body so he hits the ground running when he arrives in Lincoln. Playing in a run-heavy offense at Lakeville South High School in Minnesota, Androff is no stranger to physical football and run blocking.
“You gotta be big on the edges in this league, there’s a lot of big six techniques and fives and nines,” Frost said in December. “Tight ends need to be able to block those guys. He’s (Androff) got the frame to do it.”