The most natural and immediate reaction to the JD Spielman news earlier this week was to look outward. Who could be coming to replace the junior wide receiver whose status with the Huskers is completely up in the air. Nebraska’s statement on the absence was that head coach Scott Frost expects Spielman to return for the fall, but speculation takes on a life of its own with these things. A temporary leave of absence is just easier to believe when the person in question stays geographically close.
But Spielman is not staying close. He’s back home in Minnesota. So, everyone went racing looking for who might take his place. Nebraska has two scholarship spots open, should it want to go that route. But the Huskers don’t just have depth concerns at wide receiver. Running back could be a target. A defender could be a target.
What if Nebraska, for one reason or another, just stood pat at wideout? Went with what it had?
Here are five names who could, for one reason or another, stand to gain the most ground in Spielman’s absence.
A redshirt freshman with a unique blend of size and speed. Hickman is 6-foot-6 and can really run. Maybe it’s still residual disappointment from whiffing on Noah Fant and watching him turn into a high NFL draft pick, but the desire seems to be there to turn Hickman into a 250-ish pound tight end. He was recruited to play tight end, and most expected him to be a darn good tight end, but why pile on 45 pounds if it means he’s going to lose some of that explosiveness?
Nebraska likes Hickman. A lot. And at one point or another, it’s going to want him on the field regardless of where he’s playing. We’ve seen a little experimentation already, to be fair. In 2019, we saw a split backfield featuring Hickman and a running back flanking Adrian Martinez in the gun. Nebraska could do a lot out of that, using him as a blocker in the screen game, using him as a decoy or using him as a receiver in the quick passing game.
Or it could flex him out wide. He’s enough of an athlete to be productive out there.
Or it could just leave him at tight end and let him battle it out with Travis Vokolek and Jack Stoll and Austin Allen.
Nebraska has options, and it should and probably will evaluate all those options. A healthy Hickman will get an opportunity with Spielman out of the picture to move around and try and build some momentum for himself. That’s the beauty in the storm that is JD Spielman’s departure.
Until Nebraska officially replaces him, the guys in the boat right now will be asked to pick up the slack. That means more reps. Hickman’s usage this spring will be a topic to monitor.
One of four scholarship receivers going through spring ball, if Chris Hickman isn’t taking his reps on the edge, Alante Brown is going to hit the ground running with the Husker wideouts. The 5-foot-11 freshman was the only early enrollee amongst the wideouts. He was also the No. 1 rated prep school player in the country.
Greg Smith loves him as a potential immediate impact kind of guy, and that was a stance he developed before Spielman left the picture.
Nebraska could get weird with Brown if it wanted to, in the sense that he was a high school quarterback who threw for 41 touchdowns as a senior. A double-reverse pass was something Scott Frost pulled out of his bag of tricks on more than one occasion last season, so theoretically it could have a fun package for Brown should he earn at least a somewhat-prominent role.
The presence of Matt Lubick as Nebraska’s OC and wideout coach inspires confidence Nebraska will have its wide receivers playing fundamentally-sound football in short order. Brown being here early, working with Martinez early, and learning in Lubick’s meeting room early, all in the absence of Nebraska’s most entrenched wideout, could spell early (and important) snaps for Brown.
Spielman’s absence from spring ball doesn’t just cost Nebraska a wideout, it costs Nebraska a return man as well. With Wan’Dale Robinson already shouldering such a huge load on offense, it would stand to reason the Huskers wouldn’t want to hand him return man responsibilities as well.
Enter Nance. The 6-foot, 170-pound deep threat out of Oklahoma only played saw the field once in 2019. That was after enrolling early. Nance was a 4-star out of Oklahoma who left with 21 touchdowns in 107 career catches, 10 career interceptions, and over 800 yards of return yardage in his last two seasons.
The young man can catch the football and fly.
His biggest obstacles to playing time in 2019 were bodies ahead of him and size.
But the freshman wideout Nebraska prioritized a season ago transferred away and Nance will now be going through his second full offseason of weight training with strength coach Zach Duval. On paper, he should have as much of a chance as any wideout this offseason to create a role for himself.
Behind Wan’Dale Robinson, Kade Warner has the most production of any Nebraska wideout on the roster. The junior walk-on had eight catches for 101 yards in 2019 and 17 catches for 95 yards the year prior.
He began his sophomore year behind the eight ball on account of an injury that cost him fall ball and the first third of the season. In his absence, former offensive coordinator Troy Walters and Frost both talked about the need to get him healthy and the boost he’d provide when he did.
At some point sooner or later, the Huskers are going to have to make a decision on Warner and whether he’s in their plans or not. If he’s a guy they’re going to lean on while the younger players develop, he should probably go on scholarship. That’s true whether Spielman is here or not.
This spring should answer that question. Warner will most likely start as the No. 2 (or No. 1, depending on alignment) wideout. Can’t ask for a better opportunity than that.
Is he one of Nebraska’s more well-rounded receivers? We’ll find out.
Nebraska’s running back situation in the spring of 2019 is far removed from its running back room in the spring of 2018. Belt was in a room with Jaylin Bradley and Wyatt Mazour and that was about it. Dedrick Mills wouldn’t arrive until later that summer and Maurice Washington wasn’t participating.
Belt was the talk of the spring at running back, but he was about the only guy position coach Ryan Held could talk about. It didn’t translate to much in the 2019 season. He had only five carries for 32 yards.
Now, (big breath) Washington is gone, Mazour is gone, Bradley is gone, Sevion Morrison doesn’t arrive until the summer, Marvin Scott III doesn’t arrive until the summer, and Ronald Thompkins has some health-related things to prove before he becomes a key figure in the backfield.
Nebraska wants to diversify and beef up its screen game, so why not just throw Belt into that Duck-R role, or even a slot receiver. He’s virtually the same size as Spielman (5-foot-8, 185 pounds versus 5-foot-9, 180 pounds) and running him up the middle against Big Ten defenses feels like punishment.
If a couple of the wideouts mentioned above don’t take steps forward, why not see what Belt—a speedy and shifty guy with the ball in his hands who will be completely buried this fall—can do as an underneath kind of wideout?
“He’s made some plays. We’ve run him on some pass routes, he’s been able to get open, he’s been able to beat some guys on wheel routes and chip routes and different things, and he’s got good speed, he really does,” Held said last April. “He knows what he’s doing. That’s the thing — we’ve got to have fast blinkers, guys that know what’s happening, be able to see the signal, line up fast and go and he’s able to do that. He’s been very consistent, knock on wood.”
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.