As Nebraska’s football program continues through the rest of spring and makes its way to the summer, it’s a good time to revisit the series we did in January that gave a score of 1 through 10 to each of the nine position groups on the team.
If a position was given a score of 1, there’s not a ton of confidence there. If it was given a 10, it’s looking like it’s in great shape and there should be excitement for the fall.
Up next, we’re re-scoring the tight ends, the position that was maybe hit the hardest by injury this spring. Here’s the original story on the tight ends from January, which saw the room get a score of 7—that’s pretty good.
However, the room looks different than it did in January.
Projected starter Travis Vokolek, who caught 11 passes for 127 yards last season, did everything but hit during spring ball as he rehabbed shoulder surgery.
“I’m coming along,” Vokolek said on Feb. 28, the first day of spring practices. “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.”
It’s not like Vokolek wasn’t on the practice field at all during the spring, learning and listening as first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple installed his offense—he was, just in more of a coaching and mentor role. Of course the coaches would have liked to see him and everyone else healthy and being full participants at practice, but that just wasn’t possible.
Out of everyone on the team, though, Vokolek might have been the one who could afford having a lighter load physically this spring. The coaches know who and what they’re getting in the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Vokolek, a former transfer from Rutgers.
“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,” head coach Scott Frost said on March 9.
Vokolek fits in the “guys who you don’t need to see hit much” category. He’s entering his sixth year of college football. The veteran is a strong blocker and a better pass catcher than he gets credit for. There weren’t many opportunities for receptions playing behind the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year, Austin Allen, but Vokolek still flashed what kind of hands he has last season:
While Vokolek will be back for fall camp, the tight end who was considered the No. 2 option, Thomas Fidone II, likely won’t.
Fidone, a consensus four-star prospect and the No. 2 tight end recruit in the 2021 class according to the 247Sports Composite, suffered an injury during the spring that kept him out of practices and the spring game. It’s unclear how much time Fidone will miss.
“I’m not going to comment yet until we know the extent and details of everything,” Frost said of Fidone on March 24. “So when the time is appropriate, I will.”
This is Fidone’s second injury in as many seasons that’s kept him off the field. During his first spring ball in 2021, Fidone tore his left ACL. He was able to see a few live snaps at Wisconsin after attacking the rehab process.
Unfortunately, Fidone wasn’t the only one in the room who was unable to practice this spring as both Chris Hickman and Chancellor Brewington were out with injuries.
Hickman, who has battled multiple injuries while being moved back and forth between receiver and tight end during his career, was seen at the spring game with his left arm in a sling. The 6-5, 215-pound Omaha Burke product has yet to find a place in the offense and has five catches for 90 yards in three seasons. Brewington, who transferred to Lincoln from Northern Arizona, is an undersized option at 6-3, 185 pounds, but did well in short-yardage packages as a blocker. He caught three passed for 20 yards and a touchdown last season.
The number of injuries at the position has opened the door of opportunity for other scholarship tight ends, like AJ Rollins and James Carnie, as well as walk-on Nate Boerkircher, all of whom are in-state products.
Rollins, a multi-sport standout at Creighton Prep, has seen his stock rise with the extra reps at practice. The 6-6, 230-pounder has a ways to go in his development as all the young tight ends do, but he showed flashes of being a contributor next to Vokolek in the spring game with this 27-yard reception:
Sean Beckton, Nebraska’s tight ends coach, had to like what he saw from Rollins, whose blocking might have been further along than his receiving skills when he first got to Lincoln.
“He’s always been a physical kid. I’m getting him to learn how to play a little bit more as a receiver,” Beckton said this spring. “He’s really starting to put things together. He came in really early this morning, ‘Coach, what do we have that’s new?’ That’s what it’s going to take for him to continue to progress.”
Boerkircher hails from Allen’s hometown of Aurora, Nebraska, and is trying to emulate Allen’s work ethic. At 6-4, Boerkircher has continued to add good weight and is around 230 pounds this spring.
Last season, Boerkircher played in three games—Fordham, Buffalo and Northwestern—and hauled in two catches for 14 yards. The three games was by design, Beckton said, because the plan was to use a redshirt on the young athlete.
“Because I saw the potential in him, give us a longer shelf life with him here,” Beckton said. “He’s really, really matured with his body also. He’s added weight, up over 235 (pounds) now and has actually increased his speed. So we’re really excited about him coming along.”
The former Aurora Husky was even given a shoutout by the head coach this spring when he was discussing the injury situation in the tight end room.
“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.”
One way to combat the depth problems at tight end is to use more 11 (one back, one tight end) or 10 (one back, no tight ends, four receivers) personnel sets. Whipple, a coaching veteran of 40-plus years, has a vast playbook and is confident in his ability to find answers against defenses that are giving him problems.
The injuries in Nebraska’s tight end room are hard to overlook, though. While the staff seems confident that Vokolek will be able to step into the starting lineup this fall and not miss much of a beat, there are still questions about how effective those behind him can be, both as blockers and receivers. There simply isn’t a lot of playing experience between the healthy bodies that are available.
The Husker tight ends’ score drops from a 7 to a 4.