Well, it’s finally official. JD Spielman won’t be returning to Nebraska for his senior season.
Despite what Scott Frost said at the time, I think most of us knew it was over when the dynamic receiver from Minnesota took personal a leave from the team back in spring, but Spielman officially entered the NCAA Transfer Portal this week and took his 170 receptions, 2,546 yards and 15 touchdowns with him.
From now on, we don’t have to do the with or without Spielman thing—there’s only without. So what does a post-Spielman Nebraska offense look like?
First and foremost, regardless of how either side felt about each other, it’s a massive loss for the Huskers on the field. Spielman is really good at what he does. According to PFF, his 59 receptions of 15 or more yards from the slot is the most in college football since 2017. Beyond just the raw production, though, Spielman was a safety valve for Adrian Martinez on third down and one of the team’s most dynamic big-play threats.
TDs + 1st Down receptions from the slot since 2017:
1. JD Spielman – 102
2. K.J. Hill – 96
3. Tyler Johnson – 92 pic.twitter.com/7e2xxQEz4N
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 8, 2020
His absence leaves a massive void (despite his diminutive stature), but fortunately, the Huskers might have just the guy to fill it.
One of Nebraska’s problems in 2019 was too much homogeneity at wide receiver—all three of Nebraska’s regular starting wide receivers probably belonged in the slot. Wan’Dale Robinson spent a lot of time in the backfield—probably more than Nebraska would have preferred—but at 5-foot-10 with tremendous short-area quickness, the Kentucky native is a natural slot receiver.
When Nebraska went standard 11 personnel, it often pushed Spielman to an outside receiver position. It wasn’t the most natural fit for him, but he was talented enough to make it work and he transitioned from a typical target machine slot receiver to more of a deep threat (caches went down, yards per catch went up). But he’s gone now.
Robinson is still very much present, though, and the slot is all his moving forward. Derek Peterson broke down Robinson’s freshman usage in depth recently, and 16 of his 40 receptions came from the slot, producing 250 yards including 183 yards after the catch. That number should at least double in 2020 as Nebraska fully weaponizes him as a true Duck-R capable of sliding seamlessly between the slot and the backfield.
The other part of that equation is the group of receivers that will play around Robinson. With bigger receivers like Omar Manning (6-foot-4) and Zavier Betts (6-foot-2) outside the numbers and the likes of Alante Brown, Jamie Nance, Demariyon Houston and Marcus Fleming stretching the field with their speed, Nebraska has a chance to balance the field much better in 2020, which could in turn open things up even more in the middle of the field for Robinson.
As Greg Smith touched on in his feature on Robinson for the upcoming Football Yearbook, just a handful of games into his career, Nebraska’s coaches chose him to represent the team when the university announced plans for a new practice facility. On the first day of spring, he was one of just eight players chosen to speak with the media, and he was the only underclassman (joining six seniors and junior Cam Taylor-Britt).
Despite having just 10 games under his belt, Robinson is the most experienced receiver on the team and he has already embraced something of a leadership role.
"I had that in high school,” Robinson said. “After my freshman year, I kind of knew that I was going to be the guy. From this point on, I'm just going to try to help the young guys who haven't played and the redshirt guys and even the walk-on guys. Just to help them get through the spring and help them through everything, so that they can go out there and compete."
Would it be much better if Nebraska had a player as proven as Spielman out there alongside Robinson? Absolutely. If given the option, you take the talent and make it work. Scott Frost no longer has that option, though, and at least on paper, Nebraska has the pieces to weather the loss of its leading receiver and still field a productive, dynamic offense. It all starts with Robinson, though.
Both in his play on the field and his actions and words off of it, Wan’Dale Robinson was made for the spotlight, and now that light is shining squarely on him.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.