Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the 2021 Huskers: Tight Ends

January 14, 2021

For two years running now we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Wideouts

Now to finish up the pass-catchers with. . .

Tight Ends

Returning: Austin Allen (5Y JR), Travis Vokolek (5Y JR), Kurt Rafdal (5Y JR)

Incoming: Thomas Fidone (FR), AJ Rollins (FR), James Carnie (FR)

Returning production: 86.3% of targets (44/51), 80.0% of catches (28/35), 78.7% of yardage (328/417), 100.0% of touchdowns (1/1)

 TargetsCatchesCatch %Yards/catchTDsYards20+yd rec
Austin Allen271866.7%13.112365
Travis Vokolek16956.3%10.10910
Jack Stoll77100.0%12.70891
Kurt Rafdal11100.0%1.0010

*Names that have been italicized are to indicate players not returning in 2021

In the past I’ve lumped the tight ends in with the wideouts and scored them together. This year they get their own post. That room has earned it. 

Nebraska targeted the tight end 52 times in 12 games during the 2019 season. Nebraska targeted the tight end 51 times in eight games during the 2020 season.

So, an offseason of talk about getting the tight end more involved in the offense resulted in an extra two targets a game. If that doesn’t seem huge, consider this framed another way: about 22% of passes thrown by a Husker quarterback this past season (with an identifiable target) were intended for the tight end, the number was 16% in 2019. 

By and large, Nebraska did what it said it wanted to. The tight end was involved. And in doing so, Nebraska watched Austin Allen become probably its best example yet of a guy who gets into the Scott Frost system and gets better. 

Allen got a lot better. Travis Vokolek got better, too, largely in terms of his blocking ability and consistency, but let’s start with Allen. 

First of all, a quarter of his catches were explosive plays, which is hilarious. Bigger sample size and that number will come down, but that’s kinda what you want to see from a guy who stands 6-foot-8. Allen was one of the few guys who had built up enough trust with quarterback Adrian Martinez for Martinez to just throw the ball up to him and see what happens. That led to an interception and a benching against Northwestern, but it also led to incredible moments like this. 

When you have huge humans with huge catch radii, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Let them help you out. 

“I know a lot of times in the scramble drill, those quarterbacks are trying to find the big guys,” Allen said of practices this past season. “They’re trying to find whoever’s open, honestly, but I know they trust us tight ends a lot because of our frame and our size. All week through practice we’re making those plays, just building that trust with our quarterbacks.”

That’s a great sign. It doesn’t matter that Allen’s production was largely all-or-nothing or that he wasn’t producing touchdowns, Nebraska’s offense around him was largely all-or-nothing and wasn’t producing touchdowns. NU only threw five touchdowns in eight games. DeVonta Smith caught six touchdown passes in his last two games. Allen can only do so much on his own. 

But he made the most of what he got. 

“He’s playing at a high level,” said Allen’s position coach, Sean Beckton, during the year. “He’s really done some good things for us this year and he’s going to continue to do that. 

“He has emerged as one of the guys that the quarterbacks really look for downfield. He’s made some really nice plays vertically for us. Also, in-line blocking, he’s done a tremendous job of understanding what’s going on there with defensive fronts and being able to maneuver and adjust there with some physicality.”

Vokolek (6-foot-6) showed a lot of improvement as a blocker this season, too. 

Jack Stoll, the room’s leader and only senior, opted against returning for one final year, so the trio of Allen, Vokolek, and Kurt Rafdal will serve as the veteran wings under which the trio of freshmen can slide under. 

Maybe one of those guys doesn’t need help, though. It would surprise no one if a certain someone is ready to fly on his own the second he gets to campus. 

“I hope he’s a difference maker,” Frost said of Thomas Fidone on BTN’s Signing Day Special in December. “He’s as talented of a player as I’ve recruited in a long time. He’s got great downhill speed, great ball skills. We need some more guys that can push the ball downfield and he is going to give us that from the tight end position. We’re definitely excited about him.”

Fidone is an early enrollee. Whatever winter conditioning and spring ball ends up looking like, he’ll be part of it. Asked during that same BTN interview if Fidone could feature right away as a true freshman, Frost said “I think so.”

A native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Fidone was about as close to a 5-star prospect as any high school kid can get. He showed up to a Warren Academy camp in the summer just for fun and dominated dudes left and right. “If that’s not a 5-star guy, what the hell do they look like?” someone asked that day.

At 6-foot-5, Fidone has the size needed to play tight end. With 4.6 40 quickness, he has the speed to be a matchup problem. With a real attention to route running, Nebraska should be able to do some creative stuff with him right away. 

Fidone had LSU, Alabama, Florida, Florida State, and Georgia offers. Expect that Nebraska promised an immediate role to the nation’s 41st-ranked high school player and top-ranked tight end (by 247). Fidone ain’t coming to Lincoln to ride the bench. 

Which gives Beckton, Frost, and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick an interesting dynamic to manage. Could we see packages that feature Allen and Vokolek in-line with Fidone flexed out wide? Possible. That both Allen and Vokolek progressed as blockers allows NU to mix and match depending on what it wants to accomplish. 

Fidone doesn’t have to be perfectly well-rounded the second he steps on the field. Just go out and make plays, big fella. 

With the departure of Wan’Dale Robinson, there isn’t really a pass-catcher Nebraska will feature or defenses will key in on. That’s most likely a problematic development, but it could open things up for NU to just try a bunch of stuff and see what works.

Beckton’s room has a little bit of everything. 

An experienced guy who’s proven he can be a big-time playmaker and might wind up getting voted a captain in Allen.

A utility guy with room to grow in Vokolek. 

And a youngster with legitimate superstar potential in Fidone. Are we putting the cart before the horse with projecting Fidone’s impact? A little, yes, but sooner or later Nebraska’s run of elite skill guys flaming out has to end, right? And in the 247 Composite, Fidone rates as the sixth-best skill position guy the Huskers have ever signed. Better than Robinson and better than Zavier Betts.

And in this same class, Nebraska has Creighton Prep product AJ Rollins (6-foot-6) and Norris standout James Carnie (6-foot-5). Rollins is raw with potential. Carnie saw his stock explode over the course of his senior year, to the point Nebraska could no longer justify not bringing him to campus. 

With Allen, Vokolek, and Fidone, seeing extended run for either Rollins or Carnie in 2021 seems unlikely, but anything can happen. Nebraska has taught us of late to never sharpie a guy into a role before he arrives on campus. If one of them balls out in camp and takes someone’s spot, there’s no reason they shouldn’t play. Would it really surprise anyone if Carnie stays proving people wrong? Not really.

Nebraska doesn’t have to be married to anyone. Everyone has to earn their keep. First-team reps at tight end will be as competitive as any other spot on the field.

Projecting numbers is a fool’s errand right now with so much unknown about the way the offense is going to function, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give credit where credit is due. This is a really, really, really good room. And Beckton deserves a lot of credit and respect for developing Allen, landing Vokolek, and closing the deal with Fidone.

If you’re hesitant about the room because there’s uncertainty about the impact they will be allowed to have, that’s perfectly reasonable. But this is an evaluation of the strength of the group. Ask yourself this: how many Big Ten teams would take this tight end room as their own? I’d argue all 13 of ‘em. 

Score: 9/10

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